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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

New farming method to grow strawberries in Dubai bears fruit

How far does a strawberry travel from the plant it is plucked from to reach your lips?

In the UAE, where demand for fresh produce is growing all the time, the answer is perhaps hundreds or even thousands of kilometres.

But a French company is trialling a method of farming in Dubai that would allow communities to grow food right on their doorstep, despite the harsh desert climate, and it is beginning to bear fruit.

Agricool have already had success in Paris, where the company grows strawberries around the city in recycled shipping containers and sells them in local supermarkets.

Their self-contained hydroponic grow rooms — branded as "cooltainers" — can be placed anywhere there is an electricity supply, meaning you can go from plant to plate in the same day.

"It makes no sense that the food you eat should travel more than you do,” said Georges Beaudoin, Agricool’s international operations manager in Dubai.

But achieving the right ecological balance to grow a tricky crop like strawberries is no mean feat — they even drafted in the help of a hive of bumble bees.

Strawberries grown at Dubai's Sustainable City - Agricool is a French start-up that grows pesticide-free inside shipping containers. Reem Mohammed / The National
Strawberries grown at Dubai's Sustainable City - Agricool is a French start-up that grows pesticide-free inside shipping containers. Reem Mohammed / The National

The first test batch was planted in July and this month they have been harvesting around 40 punnets of juicy strawberries that they hand out to the local community each day.

Over the course of each three-month season, the cooltainer can produce 1.5 tonnes of strawberries from 300 plants — the equivalent of what can be produced in 4,000 square metres of traditional farm space in just 30 sq m.

The container walls are insulated against the intense heat, and chilled using 3 cubic metres of recycled water, which is about 1 per cent of that usually used.

The plants are nurtured in an otherworldly, purple-glowing hydroponic room, where a fog of nutrient solution nourishes the roots in a way that is easier for the plants to absorb than through soil. In fact, no soil is required at all.

The electricity consumption of the cooltainer is maximised by focusing energy on using specific colours of light. “Blue, white and red — because we’re French … I’m just kidding," said Mr Beaudoin.

The red LEDs are for photosynthesis, the production of sugar and the growth of the plant. Blue helps flowering and the plant’s metabolism, and white is there to soften the purple glow a little so the fruit does not become too dark.

Georges Beaudoin, Agricool's international operations manager, picks fresh strawberries grown in the company's Dubai test cooltainer. Reem Mohammed / The National
Georges Beaudoin, Agricool's international operations manager, picks fresh strawberries grown in the company's Dubai test cooltainer. Reem Mohammed / The National

First the leaves grow and, a month later, the first flowers arrive. Then bumble bees are introduced to the container to pollinate the flowers so they can transform into fruit. In the last month of each season, the berries are harvested. Then the team can start the whole process again.

This controlled cycle, away from the natural ebb and flow of the seasons, means they can grow the crop all year around, and because there is less time between picking and eating they taste better and are better for you, too, retaining a high concentration of vitamin C.

The luscious strawberries are also 100 per cent pesticide free — “I don’t even wash the strawberry from the plant to the punnet,” said Mr Beaudoin.

Growing food locally like this is better for the planet since fresh produce often has to be brought in to the UAE from faraway places such as the US and the Netherlands, taking up to two weeks to arrive.

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Read more:

Neighbourhood Watch: Farming grows sense of community at Dubai's Sustainable City

Forward-thinking plan served up to protect UAE's future food supply

How fruit and vegetables grown in vertical farms could soon be on plates in water-scarce countries across the Middle East

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This type of enterprise is particularly important in the UAE, where food security is a major issue. According to figures from the Produce Marketing Association, the GCC's population is expected to have increased by 30 per cent by 2030 from where it stood in 2000.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia alone account for over 2 per cent of the world's fresh produce imports, and there is a growing taste for fresh food in the region. The market for fresh berries alone grew by 8 per cent between 2014 and 2016.

Greenhouses take significant energy to keep cool and water is scarce. Falling groundwater levels in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as an arid climate with limited rainfall and rising soil salinity pose a challenge for those wishing to grow food in the region. But these difficult conditions are driving a wave of innovation from entrepreneurs trying to find solutions.

A boy eats a strawberry grown by Agricool's at Dubai's Sustainable City. Reem Mohammed / The National
A boy eats a strawberry grown by Agricool's at Dubai's Sustainable City. Reem Mohammed / The National

In June, Mariam Almheiri, Minister of State for Future Food Security, announced during a radio interview that the UAE is set to establish a "Silicon Valley" of food technology.

“We are living in an era of increased pressures on food production stemming from a host of interlocking challenges, including accelerating climate change, dwindling fresh water access and escalating energy demands,” she said.

“Providing adequate food for the world’s citizens is a global problem and one that is likely to become more pressing in the coming decades.”

In July, the Dubai government said it would build 12 vertical farms, hydroponics is growing in popularity and, in Al Ain, one farmer saves water by fostering a symbiosis between watermelon and fish.

Agricool's containers mean that food can be grown in challenging climates, such as a desert or even the tundra, and could also be leased to people to grow for themselves for their remote community or city high-rise. Should the strawberries prove successful, they hope to sell them locally and then diversify their crops. Tomatoes are one possible option — they are among the most imported foods globally, and one that also suffers the most in terms of quality.

"We could ship the containers around the world and everyone can have their fresh product," said Mr Beaudoin.

“Everyone should have the right to eat well."