Who says you can’t grow food crops in the desert? Through the methodology of vertical farming and light-assisted hydroponic systems, farmers in the UAE are effortlessly growing not only mass-consumption food crops, but also rare and exotic plants and high-value foods. .
Recently, Sharjah-based agricultural technology company Veggitech revealed that it has grown and harvested the world’s most expensive spice, saffron, also known as red gold.
After a few years of experimenting with smaller quantities of saffron bulbs, Veggitech teams have grown around 150,000 Crocus Sativa bulbs from the Netherlands by growing them in vertical farms in Al Zubair. The company’s farm in Sharjah also has an extensive fig plantation and grows mass consumption produce such as tomatoes, chillies and green leafy vegetables.
Besides saffron and figs, at least 75 farms in Abu Dhabi have been encouraged to switch to organic farming and are successfully growing tomatoes, cabbages and cucumbers, for example.
And it does not stop there. Emirates seafood producers have adopted new aquaculture methods to successfully grow and farm Atlantic salmon, oysters, sea bass and sea bream for domestic consumption. Fish Farm in Dubai produces 10,000 to 15,000 kg of salmon every month.
More recently, Bustanica, Emirates Flight Catering’s largest hydroponic farm in the world, has already started distributing its products to the retail outlets of supermarkets such as Geant. The facility can produce over 1,000,000 kg of high quality leafy greens per year.
Why the cultivation of saffron?
It’s a very profitable business, say Veggitech officials. The first of its kind in the United Arab Emirates and the largest in the MENA region, the “red gold” farm covers 165 m², the equivalent of 3.5 hectares of land. Depending on the grade and quality, one kilogram of saffron can sell for Dh3,200 to Dh11,386.
Vertical farm technology, equipped with indoor temperature control solutions, produces healthier crops without fertilizers or pesticides.
“In our first harvest, each bulb will produce three to four strands of saffron, but next year we expect 12-15 strands, and that will only continue to grow over time,” said Dr Ardalan. Ghilavizadeh, who joined Veggitech to lead the saffron project. Once the flowers appear, the bulbs are transferred to the greenhouse for the next stage of the growing cycle.
“Our inaugural vertical saffron farm currently houses around five tonnes of saffron bulbs, of which we are expecting 1,000 kg of saffron crocuses. From this we will get 3 kg of the best Super Negin in the world. A fascinating time indeed and a huge step for the UAE,” explained Dr Ghilavizadeh.
Boom times for UAE agriculture
According to a joint report by Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park and Deep Knowledge Analytics, released Nov. 24, the UAE’s agritech sector comprises 36% indoor farming, 15.9% precision farming and 15% agricultural inputs.
The report indicates that the industry is likely to register a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.5% between 2022 and 2027.
There are currently 66 Emirati companies tackling the issue of sustainability, with UAE-based companies receiving over $50 billion in investments in 2021, around 1.1% of global capital invested in agritech . Moreover, about 65% of the country’s agritech companies are micro-enterprises with less than 50 employees.
The time has come for aquaculture
Ramie Murray, CEO of Dibba Bay Oysters Farm, told Gulf News: “We are growing continuously. Currently, we produce between 300,000 and 400,000 oysters per month. This is phenomenal growth for us. We were producing 30,000 to 40,000 per month just two years ago. We will produce 600,000 per month by the beginning of next year.
“Currently, half of our production is consumed locally. We export the rest to countries like Hong Kong, Malaysia, Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius.
The company aims to export to many more Asian markets shortly. It has made oysters readily available in major supermarkets in the UAE and in over 100 hotels and restaurants across the country. “We have three farm-to-table outlets in the UAE – two in Dubai and one in Dibba – where people can come and taste the oysters directly from the people who farmed them.”
In general, oyster farming is a sustainable form of aquaculture with no negative impact on the environment – oysters improve water quality by filtering 200 liters of seawater per day.