x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Growing vegetables in the mist

Saudi Arabia suffers from a number of problems in producing fruit and vegetables, most notably the lack of fertile soil. But what about growing them in mist?

JEDDAH // Saudi Arabia is an unlikely place for an agricultural revolution, but inside a small warehouse on a farm on the outskirts of Jeddah, that is exactly what is taking place.

Rising food prices and strained water supplieshave led food producers in the kingdom to look to unorthodox methods to help feed a rapidly growing population.

Adawat International, a Jeddah company, took delivery in December of the Middle East's first self-sustaining aeroponic farming units, which grow fruit and vegetables without soil.

The AeroFarms system has been experimenting with growing tomatoes, arugula (also known as rocket) and alfalfa by spraying nutrients in mist form at the roots of plants.

Because the units can be stacked, AeroFarms estimates its methods can reap about 60 times the production of an equivalent area of soil.

The produce tastes almost the same, except for a slightly spicy aftertaste because of a lack of minerals in desalinated water used to sustain the plants.

Saleh Bawazir, the president of Adawat International, said the aeroponics process met many of the agricultural challenges of the Gulf.

"We don't have the land, the water or the weather for crops," he said. "But 80 per cent of the solution is technological."

Aeroponic farming avoids the need for pesticides and requires only a tenth of the water needed for traditional agriculture. The farm harvests its water from the humidity in the air in an effort to be self-sufficient. Crop production with AeroFarms units is also much faster. Whereas a soil-based farm can require up to three months for each harvest, AeroFarms units can produce crops in 18 days.

Farms can also be built vertically in skyscrapers and operated remotely.

Aeroponic methods were developed to grow plants experimentally in space. In 1995, US astronauts used aeroponics to sustain potato plants on board the orbiting Space Shuttle Columbia.

Commercial use has been limited outside of the Middle East until recently.

But the government of Qatar has requested a demonstration of 75 aeroponic units from Adawat, each worth about US$40,000 (Dh146,916).

The need for food production in the Middle East is becoming increasingly acute as the region's rapidly increasing population puts a strain on water supplies and arable land.

The GCC is facing a shortage of land and water for people and aeroponic farming "addresses all of these issues", said Mr Bawazir.

An index of global food prices compiled by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation rose 2.2 per cent last month from the January figure, reaching its highest levelsince January 1990, when the index was created.

Rabi Mohtar, the executive director of the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute, said aeroponics could help to feed the Middle East's growing population as water became scarcer.

"I think that's why we need to look at it," he said.

"My only question is that it has been successfully used in many parts of the world but it hasn't been replicated in areas where you're using desalinated water."

Despite the attractiveness of aeroponic agriculture, he warned, there was no "magic bullet" to solve the issue of food security.

"There are good fundamental questions that we have to ask," Mr Mohtar said. "The quality of the food that we produce is going to be different."