It is a stark truth that there is a significant gap between the amount of agricultural goods produced and food needs globally. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion, and in order to keep up with the pace of demand, annual cereal production will need to rise to 3 billion tons, up from the 2.1 billion tons produced today. While agriculture in the Middle East represents a mere 13% of the region’s GDP, the sector plays a strategically important role in promoting resilient food systems, keeping critical economic sectors alive, and forming the base of many economies. Out of the region’s total population of 296 million people, 84 million, or 28%, are entirely dependent on agriculture.

Historically, agriculture has long been at the center of social and economic life in the Middle East, with diets relying on the production of cereals and livestock, and later, fruits and vegetables produced on carefully irrigated land. With its generally more arid climate and more limited water resources, necessity has driven the region to be a center for both ancient and contemporary agricultural innovation, from irrigation practices to fertilizers. Nevertheless, scarce arable land and water supply have continued to prove increasingly detrimental to regional food production, making many countries heavily dependent on imported agricultural products and, accordingly, highly vulnerable to fluctuations in international commodity markets. The situation is growing increasingly dire and is only poised to get worse with the continuing environmental degradation linked to climate change.

Climate change, demographic patterns, and food trade imbalances

Throughout the world, weather and desertification patterns have become increasingly irregular. Almost two-thirds of the Middle East population lives in areas lacking sufficient renewable water resources to sustain crop production. On average, 83% of water use in MENA goes to agriculture, in contrast to the mere 4% devoted to industrial purposes.

The region’s high urbanization rate, reaching 70% today, and the expected population increase to 329 million by 2050 renders it particularly vulnerable to climate change’s pernicious effects. The Malthusian premise of population growth leading to inevitable scarcity and suffering helps to explain the decline of agricultural productivity, but is limited in its ability to explain — or propose solutions to — the issue at hand, in the region or globally.

In the Middle East, disproportionate consumption patterns have played a primary role in promoting food insecurity. Indeed, countries in the region represent the largest importers of cereal in the world today and import at least 50% of the food calories they consume. Ongoing climate change dynamics have further intensified global food trade imbalances and disproportionately affected food-insecure and import-reliant regions such as the Middle East.

In such a context, it is likely that accommodating increased demands on agriculture with existing farming practices will result in more intense competition for natural resources, increase gas emissions, and cause further land degradation. The case of Iran is instructive: Currently, about half of Iran’s farmland is on “poor quality” land, which has led farmers to invest in unsustainable groundwater pumping systems, thereby increasing soil salinity and endangering the renewal of water resources. Short-term fixes for what is a systemic problem are unlikely to be effective in the long run.

However, in a region that has been at the forefront of recent developments in technology, a new trend has emerged that may promise solutions to the problem of food scarcity. Over the last decade, new technology has been developed to address agriculture’s longstanding structural problems related to unproductive farming soils and water shortages. Such initiatives could potentially play a pivotal role in promoting food systems’ resilience across the region.

Such technologies are designed to increase and improve the outputs of the agricultural sector, while using less energy and more sustainable methods. Responding to the need to promote sustainable agricultural growth, agricultural technology (or “agritech”) today aims to reduce agrarian waste and the use of chemical fertilizers. Looking to the future — while taking cues from the past — may unlock the solutions to the region’s desperate food insecurity.

A diverse set of technologies developed on different scales

These developments are part of agrarian developments dating back over the last hundred years to increase agricultural productivity and are thus part of the agritech model. Over the last decade, the region has witnessed a fledgling agritech start-up scene, which leverages technologies as diverse as data analytics, the internet of things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI).

Sustainable agriculture is promoted on two different scales across the region. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are at the forefront of the “large-scale” agritech movement through collaborative partnerships between start-ups, private businesses, and governments. The UAE has made the most significant investment in this field to date, with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) investing no less than $100 million in agritech companies in the context of its National Food Security Strategy. Indeed, exploring agritech solutions is particularly relevant for GCC countries, which are especially prone to water scarcity and accelerated desertification.

For Gulf countries, agritech succeeds a series of unsuccessful strategies aiming to ramp up the production of agricultural staples at a massive cost. As early as the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia, for example, initiated huge water irrigation subsidies to boost the production of wheat, a considerable expense which the arid country could no longer afford by 2008. Another aspect of the GCC countries’ agrarian strategy has consisted of buying fertile farmland and pursuing agricultural investments in Africa, to help ensure the food supply. In Zambia, Gulf investors have focused on outright acquisitions of farmland, with the aim of producing grains, sugar, beans, and seeds, to boost food security. In 2016, the total non-oil trade between Africa and the UAE stood at $24 billion, up from $17.5 billion in 2014, mainly driven by rising food production exports from the African continent to the Emirates.

By promoting innovative agricultural methods in a sustainable manner, agritech departs from previous attempts to boost food production. As such, it could represent an adequate response to the water scarcity challenges mentioned above in the long run. Nevertheless, the development of such technology requires substantial upfront investment. It is thus yet to be determined whether such large investments will succeed and whether agritech will remain at the forefront of the Gulf region’s agricultural sector in the long run.

There are clear benefits to using these new technologies, however. Designed to address the fact that the UAE’s imports more than 80% of its food requirements, Badia Farms emerged as the Gulf’s first indoor vertical farm. This soilless farming method for agricultural growth is estimated to use 90% less water than open fields. Meanwhile, in Jordan, the start-up Tulua creates and manages aquaponic systems, a method aimed at generating higher yields without waste. Responding to increased patterns of desertification in the UAE, the company Desert Control resorts to a new non-intrusive soil recovery technology based on Liquid Natural Clay (LNC), a nanoclay that turns unproductive desert land into fertile soil.

Given the rapid development of diverse methods and technologies, knowledge sharing between agritech start-ups has become crucial in supporting sustainable agriculture in the region. In this context, virtual platforms such as AgraME, organizing meetings and conferences to bring together the agriculture community in the region, constitute critical elements of Middle East countries’ strategies to promote agrarian knowledge sharing among private actors as well as to create synergies between different sectors and stakeholders in the region.

In contrast to large-scale agritech investments, in which local and state governments play a prominent role, the region has also witnessed the rise of small-scale agricultural techniques carried out by private actors and grassroots networks in lower-income countries. In Egypt, the start-up Wastilizer uses animal waste to produce plant fertilizers, intending to enhance the quality of crops based on the concept of a circular economy. Meanwhile, the Lebanese start-up Riego has developed an irrigation system using hardware and software to reduce agricultural water consumption.

COVID-19 as a catalyst for agritech development

The recent pandemic and subsequent disruption of global food supply chains provided momentum for developing agritech initiatives throughout the region. In 2020, ADIO launched a series of partnerships worth $41 million with agritech companies, making it the MENA region’s largest investment to date in this area. ADIO’s partnership schemes include agritech companies such as Pure Harvest, which leverages Dutch greenhouse growing technologies for producing vine vegetable crops, and Nanoracks’ StarLab Space Farming Center, researching food production in extreme weather settings. Recently, Jordan also saw the launch of its first agritech accelerator, HASSAD, which aims to provide support to agritech start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises. Israel’s Hebrew University also launched its first agritech accelerator, HUGROW, which focuses on promoting early commercially-viable innovations in the agricultural sector and advancing research in the field.

The momentum around agritech initiatives may have significant potential to create new economic opportunities and high-quality jobs at a time when unemployment rates are at elevated levels. Sustainable agrarian developments could also promote stability in a geopolitically fragile region, which remains highly vulnerable to water-related transboundary conflicts and population movements. The long-running dispute over the construction and filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a case in point and illustrates the intertwinement of water with interstate politics and conflicts in the water-scarce Middle East.

However, the solutions proposed by the agritech field leave some significant questions unanswered. For example, given the high start-up costs involved, will long-term agricultural transformation be attainable for lower-income countries in the region? These countries, including Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, lack proper access to funding and governmental support to develop cutting-edge agritech innovations. Their rigid regulatory environment, as well as ongoing political instability, also pose significant limits to the utility of such innovations.

A way forward may consist of fostering mutual incentives for agritech start-ups and farmers in lower-income countries of the region. Solutions may include making agricultural technology more affordable, as it is currently 25% more expensive to produce food locally using such technology rather than importing it. Incentives could rely on subsidies for renewable energy, particularly solar and wind, or focus on infrastructure by improving access to water in the region’s rural areas. Another potential solution could consist of developing agricultural insurance specifically targeted toward farmers using such technologies.

In addition, agriculture technologies could benefit from increased collaboration between countries in the region. Some hints of such developments are already noticeable with the UAE’s launch of the “FoodTech Challenge,” seeking to reward innovative solutions addressing food security with a $1 million investment. Further, Israeli company Vertical Field and UAE company Emirates Smart Solutions & Technologies have recently signed an agreement to develop agritech projects in the Persian Gulf, such as vertical farms. It is yet to be seen whether such collaborations will accelerate and expand in the post-Abraham Accords context. Nevertheless, such partnership will surely need to be extended to lower-income countries as well in order to promote a sustainable future for the region.

Efforts should also focus on supporting small-scale farming solutions through investing in training programs for agritech. Grassroots training platforms already exist in the region, such as the Ghaletna Project in Lebanon, which provides local families with seedlings and agriculture training to improve self-sufficiency. Local leaders, communities, and private actors could build on these existing tools to foster awareness and education about developing agricultural technologies, including more sustainable methods of food production.

Agritech is part of efforts to localize food production and empower local communities. While the pandemic accelerated socio-economic disparities and exacerbated the problem of food insecurity, it has also provided an impetus for all governments and private actors in the region to engage in agritech on different scales. Community and government leaders should consider exploring the nascent opportunities provided by the industry to promote sustainable food systems in the region.

 

Chloé Bernadaux is an international security specialist. Her research interests lie at the intersection of social movements, political economy, and foreign policy analysis in the Middle East. The views expressed in this piece are her own.

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