How to sustainably run a farm in the desert, with Dr. Majid Al Qassimi
I’ve been wanting to do a show on food & AgriTech pretty much since I first started the podcast. That’s because I’m personally very interested in food, where food comes from, and its effect on my body.
My friends are always reminding me that I’m a very picky eater and they absolutely hate going to restaurants with me because I always ask the staff about 101 questions about ingredients and how the dish was prepared. I guess I prefer to buy my own groceries and cook my meals myself so that I have full control over what’s going inside my body. Good thing the UAE (where I live) is making headway towards ensuring more locally produced food to satisfy my obsession!
In this episode, we sit down with Dr Majid Al Qassimi, who is a founding partner for the Middle East's only food & agricultural sustainability consulting company, SOMA MATER. We discuss the following aspects from farm to fork:
The importance of food security
The UAE’s efforts towards ensuring food security
Agriculture technology trends that support farming
Business aspects of commercial farming
Methods to reduce food waste
Did you know that 90% of the food in the UAE is imported?
If global trade permanently, fully shut down, what would the residents of the UAE eat?
Eerily sounds like the COVID-19 lockdown, doesn't it?
Everyone has to eat to survive, no matter what’s going on outside.
Thankfully, the leaders of the UAE know that they need to make its land work for its people. And so, they've been investing in and developing irrigation technology with experts globally to allow local farmers to produce a variety of food items to cater to the many tastes and preferences of its diverse population. Whilst traditionally, the UAE focused on farming dates, there’s only so many dates people will eat (though dates are a huge export to the UAE and it has a global network of date farms).
Though currently, global trade has stepped in to fill in the food gaps in the market, the UAE is undergoing considerable investments in agriculture to ensure better food security for the country.
Increased attention is being given towards AgriTech as a means of food security
Amongst the growing investments being made in agriculture in the UAE, Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) launched a three-year AgriTech Program that offers 75% rebate on all R&D activities. This scheme has attracted many aspiring startups internationally to the country to test, refine, and align their technologies to the unique local climate. In turn, the country sources methods of food security, complimenting in-country research and development efforts mostly taking place in local universities (e.g. NYU Abu Dhabi & UAEU) and research institutions.
Because of the general "tech-hub" status of the UAE, it will likely be a springboard of how the rest of the Middle East feeds itself, and maybe even the rest of the world if climate change continues in the same direction it’s going right now
There are some very phenomenal open field agricultural practices here that are doing a good job of providing quality service
What's the difference between farming and AgriTech?
Farming is the production of food on the land whereas AgriTech refers to technology that is used in agriculture, though it doesn’t necessarily directly produce any food.
An example of AgriTech is hydroponic systems that allow food to be grown in a controlled environment (e.g. lighting and plant nutrients would be controlled).
Interested in taking up farming as a hobby or side business?
You can buy hydroponic kits of all sizes to try out at home! But to commercially scale your at-home farm for retail consumptions requires you to consider several marketing and commercial aspects.
Retailers need to ensure that greens are always stocked on their shelves, so you'll be required to over-grow to over-stock. Approximately only 1/2 of what’s grown gets purchased.
Retailers will negotiate your rates and they will either buy your product at wholesale or sell you shelf space in exchange for a rebate.
You'll have to compete with established companies that already have economies of scale on their side.
A considerable investment made be made if you wish to produce at scale to overcome these factors. If you're a new player in the market, you'll have to focus on a specific item to channel your investment to achieve this (e.g. Pure Harvest focuses on tomatoes). Some food items are more competitive to get into than others.
In any case, the retailer always takes the most of the value chain and the farmer takes the least.
How can we be more mindful of food wastage in efforts to be more sustainable?
Companies in waste management (e.g. Sharjah-based Bee'ah) can split food waste to minimize the off-gassing and methane bi-products of landfill-destined waste, which is where most of the waste ends up (i.e. separate compostable food waste, recycles, and paper from other waste).
Restaurants and dining facilities can offer a la carte as opposed to buffet options, and if you must offer buffet dining then consider food recycling options (e.g. turn leftover fruit into juice). These outlets can also acquire technologies that can give them better insights into food waste so that they can manage their production and procurement better (e.g. Winnow offers a scanning technology that can be placed over a bin and categorizes and quantifies food waste).
Individuals can be more mindful of their food purchasing and consumption habits. Approximately only 1/3 - 1/2 of what is purchased actually gets consumed.
Funfact: there are dumpster divers (most common in the United States) who take food from retailers' bins that have been thrown out at the end of the day due to local food laws, though they are still consumable!
A big thank you to Dr. Majid Al Qassimi for lending us his insights for this episode!
Dr. Majid is very passionate about food, particularly how food is made. He has spent his career working extensively in the field of food security in the UAE, and has previously lead the team that developed the country’s federal government mandate for food security.
Here are some fun facts about Dr Majid:
He is one of the founders of one of the region’s leading podcast networks, Finyal Media.
He really loves biologically and started his career off as a practising veterinary.
He's very big on supporting local farmers.
He recommends the shakshuka at Baker & Spice.
Meanwhile, what’s been happening on my end?
Now regardless of my personal preferences towards food consumption, startup entpreneurs have been increasing diverting their attention over towards farming and AgriTech. And as a result, investors have also been diverting this attention over to the industry. So far in 2020, over $4 billion has gone into AgriTech
globally, the highest its every been annually.
Even amongst my friends, brands like Kibsons & Emirates bio farm are more regulatory discussed as a means to get locally grown produce to their doorsteps more easily.
From my own point of view, I’ve been noticing more and more locally produced produce in the super market during my visits. Brands such as Oasis greens & Uns farms indicate to me an increase in business attention to local food security. Here's an example of pack of leafy greens I recently purchased from Spinney's, from a local farm called Madar Farms. I'm a big fan of the eco-friendly packaging too!
Until next time,