ABU DHABI, May 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When people picture the United Arab Emirates, what likely comes to mind are desert sands, skyscrapers and a blue sea under a shimmering sun. Agriculture does not.
There are good reasons for this: the federation of seven emirates is hampered by high temperatures, a lack of arable land, salty soil and steep production costs. And that is without accounting for the occasional voracious locust swarm.
So it is hardly surprising that the UAE imports nearly 90 percent of its food needs, according to the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, a data research organization.
This reliance on the global food trade brings opportunity, said Saudi Arabian entrepreneur Omar Al Jundi, who has built the Middle East's first commercial vertical farm in Dubai.
Badia Farm - the word means 'oasis' in Arabic - grows greens like radish, kale, mustard, basil and arugula in a controlled, indoors environment using hydroponic technology and LED lights.
"As a region that has struggled to grow crops due to largely hostile desert landscapes, our farm offers a viable solution to farming that produces harvests 365 days of the year," he said.
"The produce will not only be cheaper than imported goods, but fresher too, as the farms will be producing all year round."
The farm, which began production late last year, is on an 800-square-metre plot of land in one of Dubai's main industrial areas, and produces two hundred boxes of green vegetables a day.
Though this pales in comparison to the world's largest vertical farm - which operates on 6,500 square metres of a former steel factory in New Jersey in the United States - it marks a big step for alternative farming in this region.
Vertical farming is taking off elsewhere too: Europe's first commercial farm opened near Amsterdam last year, and Shanghai will next year start a 250-acre agricultural district with skyscrapers dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables.
Vertical farming brings some important benefits, said Al Jundi: because produce is grown in a controlled environment there is no need for pesticides or chemicals. And they use much less water - 90 percent less than open-field farming.
Growing food locally for the firm's 30 UAE clients - mainly restaurants and hotels - means a smaller carbon footprint, and saves on transport costs.
"It makes no sense to order produce that arrives in boxes in the back of a ship from as far tens of thousands of miles away when it can be grown at home," he said.
Even though the UAE imports most of its food, the emirates are food secure, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
However, its food security is not without risk, said Hina Kamal, a research analyst at the UAE University's College of Food & Agriculture, as it is reliant on vulnerabilities in supplier countries and on the international food trade market.
Another concern is climate change, which is likely to increase food prices in the years ahead, said Majid Sultan Al Qassimi of the UAE's ministry of climate change and environment.
Although the UAE has strategic reserves in place to protect it from short-term disruptions, he said, "ensuring global food security will be challenging in the future due to impacts of climate change".
Part of the solution, he said, is to boost domestic production through sustainable means; another is "to diversify imports and investments to ensure that the country is food secure in the long-run".
Other solutions include setting up storage facilities abroad and acquiring farmland in Africa, Europe and Asia. Emirates NBD, a large regional bank, says UAE investors were part of at least 28 deals in the past 50 years covering about 1 million hectares of farmland globally.
The emirates' drive to secure land abroad to assure its food supply is not risk-free, Kamal said, and could be undone by political conditions in those countries or by climate change.
"It is possible that some of (the countries) will be highly affected by climate change - both through more extreme weather events and reduced productivity over time."
Droughts or food shortages could, for example, see host governments impose export bans, she said, which is why boosting productivity at home is the lowest-risk way to ensure food security in the decades to come. It is also more sustainable.
The UAE will need to improve its agricultural productivity in the coming decades to meet demand, said Qassimi, and to do so in the face of rising global temperatures that are expected to worsen extreme weather events.
"All of this has a direct impact on agricultural production, affecting both food producers and those who depend on them. The UAE is no exception," he said.
Nor, for that matter, is the Gulf region, noted a report last year from the Emirates Wildlife Society and World Wildlife Fund (EWS-WWF), which evaluated the likely effects of climate change on food security.
The UAE is a major regional hub for the re-export of food commodities, it pointed out, and the consequences of climate change, including hotter weather, could affect those facilities.
Any resultant food price spikes would hurt the poorest the most, and that could drive a long-term need for food subsidies.
There are other factors too, not least water. The UAE's agricultural sector accounts for just 1 percent of its economy, the EWS-WWF report noted, yet uses about one-third of its water - vastly disproportionate to its GDP contribution, said Fanack Water, a research group.
Given that water is more expensive than electricity in the UAE - and given that regular farmers benefit from subsidies for water - Al Jundi of Badia Farm said ending such breaks would make vertical farming a cheaper solution.
"The money spent on powering vertical farms is relatively much lower than of the cost of water used in open fields."
That said, Badia does use plenty of electricity: from pumping water to powering the artificial lighting and computers that monitor temperatures. But looking ahead, said Al Jundi, it is working with the government on a shift to renewable energy.
The impact one vertical farm can have, though, is limited, and will be felt only on the margins: it will not change the UAE's reliance on countries such as Brazil, India, Iran and South Africa for cereals, sugar and food oils, for example.
But what it represents - a better way of growing produce in a region that is facing significant challenges from climate change - is important, Al Jundi said.
"This technology will be a major contributor to agriculture sustainability, food diversity and security as it enhances crop production and lowers their cost," he said.
Reporting by Rabiya Jaffery, Editing by Robert Carmichael.
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