Abu Dhabi Goes Green for Greens

If there is one thing Abu Dhabi has in abundance, it’s sunlight. Still, investors in Abu Dhabi are pouring millions of dollars into farming enterprises that don’t use any sunlight at all. Instead, in an effort to conserve water and cut down on cooling, agricultural firms are building high-tech farms that rely on LED lights and sophisticated irrigation systems that carry nutrients to plants.

Water is scarce in much of the Middle East, and the new farms can use as little as 3 percent of the water that conventional farming requires. But the new technology does more than merely cut down on water use. In highly controlled environments, pesticide use can be reduced or eliminated, and more of the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables can be preserved.

The technology differs from firm to firm, and research is ongoing. At AeroFarm’s branch in the Emirati capital—also the world’s largest vertical farm—some fruits and vegetables will no longer need soil and water to grow. Instead, both existing and new types of plants will grow by aeroponics: a process that nourishes plants with nutrient dense mist.

Currently, the United Arab Emirates imports up to 90 percent of its food. Fresh greens and fruits are flown in from as far away as California in a process that is both expensive and takes huge amounts of energy. Dubai in early 2021 unveiled plans for a technology-forward food production zone, with a goal to triple the UAE’s food production capacity. The project is part of the UAE’s national food security strategy.

While U.S. investors’ efforts to turn a profit through vertical farms and other high-tech strategies have often fallen short at home, the Middle East represents an especially promising market. The cost of imported foods is high, water conservation has outsized value, and governments are already engaged in subsidizing local food production and are keen to produce more sustainable alternatives.

Regional investment funds are also pouring millions of dollars into new agricultural techniques, betting that the trend will spread throughout the Gulf and beyond. Greener greens may be just around the corner.

This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.