Vertical Farming in the GCC: A Silver Bullet?

Will Watts (2nd year Law)

The process of growing crops in vertically stacked layers within a fully controlled indoor environment is, without doubt, a niche proposition for ending world hunger. There are all sorts of issues, such as the huge amount of energy consumed and the astronomical start-up costs – not to mention the relatively limited range of food that can be produced. Consequently, it appears that vertical farming (VF) is stuck in an awkward middle ground. Generally speaking, the nations who are wealthy enough to invest in the technology are not concerned about food shortages, and those who do suffer from a lack of food security would probably struggle to afford VF on a wide enough scale. 

This brings us to the Arabian Gulf States, or more specifically the GCC, which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. A combination of relatively high GDP per capita rates, and an excessive dependency on imports, mean these nations are ripe with opportunity for implementing VF. The aridity of the landscape and intense radiation make traditional agriculture near impossible – or at least impossible from a sustainability perspective. Saudi Arabia currently operates crop circles which are irrigated from rain water that has gradually accumulated over thousands of years. Of course, these aquifers are almost never replenished meaning the fields are often abandoned after 20 years due to water depletion. They are also highly inefficient. Crops can only survive 4 months of the year, yet the fields must be irrigated year-round to prevent salt build-up. Considering that these water reserves are likely to be depleted in less than 15 years, the GCC needs a stronger alternative to food imports.

The importance of self-reliance has become alarmingly clear through COVID-19’s disruption of global supply chains – not to mention the recent Suez Canal blockage which resulted in billions of dollars’ worth of losses, weeks of delays and the perishing of fresh produce. By increasing the locality of food production, not only would the GCC strengthen their national sovereignty and independence, they would be dampening their carbon footprint. Considering that climate change is already depleting the Middle East’s strained pool of resources, violent competition could lead to further unrest within the region. Nevertheless, to cut down on imports (and therefore emissions) by reverting to the energy-intensive method of VF – only to then generate the electricity through burning oil – may help the GCC be self-sufficient, but not the environment. Rather than looking down at the energy source beneath their feet, the GCC must instead look up to the sky. An abundance of flat, empty desert, alongside some of the highest radiation levels in the world, suggests that solar power is their answer. 

Though solar requires huge areas of panels, vertical farming has the benefit of having almost complete control over all the variables involved with growing crops. It might be an energy-intensive process, but almost none of that energy is wasted. The ability to supply the exact amount of artificial light required – to the point that parts of the light spectrum unnecessary for plant growth aren’t used – alongside a closed functional loop which recycles excess nutrients, means that every Watt of power is translated directly into the creation of a material product. It appears that “in terms of energy efficiency, vertical farming outperforms even the most efficient greenhouses” and that, even though plants are fed indoors with artificial lighting, they are still grown through the power of the sun. 

The vital importance of solar power essentially makes it the crux of vertical farming’s implementation in the GCC. Though fossil fuels in the UAE, for example, are heavily subsidised, clean energy must be “inherent in the technology” and cannot be viewed as an optional “add-on”. Despite renewables initially having the effect of weakening and undermining the oil market, which the GCC has traditionally been reliant on, they should be seen as a long-run form of economic diversification which will create a new stream of revenue for Arab states. Returning to the UAE specifically, their domestic energy transition is shaped by international forces rather than local forces. An abundance of natural gas means the country has a relatively sustainable flow of energy for its residents, but a global reduction in demand for oil means the GCC will need to find alternative sources of income. Though the price of solar energy needs to bottom out for VF to truly take off, it appears that “[the] economics are basically lined up in favour of renewables” – strongly suggesting there is a bright future ahead.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle that the GCC faces in producing their own food is a lack of water. As the region faces extreme water stress, which will only worsen as populations grow and desertification continues, any solution to reduce consumption is likely to be attractive for the government. VF techniques such as aeroponics (a process where plant roots are suspended in air rather than soil or water) can decrease usage by 90% compared to traditional agriculture which, when paired with desalination plants, could ease off pressures caused by a lack of water. As it stands, Arabian countries are hesitant to import and export water in fear of future political spats which might result in lines being cut off – all the more reason to decrease consumption and to reduce reliance on pipelines. However, the importance of water efficiency in VF only extends to the replacement of traditional agriculture; importing food from overseas will consume less than either one. Surprisingly though, the UAE has the highest consumption of water per capita in the world, a figure which will only get higher as GDP per capita of the country increases and household expenditure goes up. Thus, it seems that the ability of wealthy Arab nations to maintain a sufficient number of vertical farms is feasible – despite the aridity of the region.

Ultimately, it appears that implementing vertical farming in the GCC is within a rare sweet spot – and a market which is ripe with opportunity. As it currently stands, exploration of this option is underway, with AeroFarm recently announcing a 90 square foot agricultural research centre in Abu Dhabi dedicated to finding VF solutions. Critics argue that riding the new wave of agricultural technology is far too expensive, but they fail to realise that conventional agriculture is usually subsidised to ensure that farmers can stay competitive against the rest of the world. Only by pushing forward the agenda can we allow governments to realise change and to redirect state investment to a new generation of farming. 

As exciting as this may sound though, the GCC should avoid hastily diving head first. Though this market for agricultural technology is growing at a compound annual growth rate of around 25%, it will not be a silver bullet solution. Researchers have found that, although costs will naturally decrease, “it is not likely to become a very cheap system” and “will not solve food shortages”. Rather, the technology should find its footing by producing niche, high value products (which do not require herbicides or pesticides) that could catch the eye of premium supermarkets and restaurants. Only then can vertical farming develop its economies of scale and attempt to break into the mainstream. Like most self-proclaimed cutting-edge alternatives, vertical farming appears to be an option – but not quite a solution. 

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