Friday, 6 May 2011

Building farms in the sky: a solution to the Middle East food crisis

Parts of the Middle East and North Africa are facing difficulties in sourcing and producing enough foodstuffs for their populations. Water is already scarce in the region, and is becoming more of a precious commodity in the region as excessive irrigation, disputes over Egypt’s dominance of the Nile to the detriment of other African countries, food inflation and 'bread riots' attest.

A mixture of high inflation, unrest of food prices and natural disasters have left harvests dramatically reduced in recent years. The forest fires in Russia alone caused major panic as the price of wheat rocketed. Moscow decided to stop exports, prices rose in importing countries, and        riots ensued.

The United Arab Emirates, which has an extremely limited agricultural base, warned several years ago that diversifying its food sources, along with creating a food reserve, is of strategic importance for dealing effectively with future supply interruptions. The Emirates imports around 80% of its food. Around the same time, Bahrain’s Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa warned, “We need to draw lessons from the current spiralling inflation hitting the world and start seriously thinking about ensuring food security in the Arab world, particularly that our countries have immense potential and resources that can be used to ensure a better future for our people”.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that according to Josette Sheeran, head of the UN World Food Programme, international food reserves are at their lowest level in the last 30 years. 
In the face of a mounting food supply crisis, what policies have the Arab nations adopted, and what possibilities remain open considering the vast financial reserves the Gulf states in particular posses? Current food security policies place too much emphasis on acquiring farmland in foreign countries. Yet without dramatic investments, these sites cannot be made to yield vast amounts of produce. New technological concepts, however, offer an exciting solution to agricultural issues in the Middle East, and will revolutionize agriculture the world over.

In recent years the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been buying up farmland in places as diverse as Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Romania. Several funds have been established solely for the purpose of investing in, and acquiring agricultural land in developing countries. Between 2006 and 2008, UAE investments in agriculture abroad increased 45 per cent. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the UAE ranked third in the amount of agricultural land obtained by selected investors between 2006 and 2009. In first and second places were China and South Korea. China is seeking 2 million hectares in Zambia for bio-fuels alone.

 A joint venture between Dubai and London-based companies will be spending $350 million on farmland in Africa and Romania.  Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Star Agricultural Development Plc is leasing 10,000 acres of land in Ethipia’s Gambella region, yet is paying only $10 per hectare annually. The company plans to invest $2.5 billion in rice-framing in Ethiopia by 2020. The African state has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007.

Abraaj Capital, a private equity group which manages $5 billion of assets across the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent, has purchased land in Pakistan during the past year. Emirates Investment Group (EIG) also put money into farmland in Pakistan when they offered up to a million acres to foreign investors.

The Saudi Binladin Group is considering investing more than $4 billion to grow food in Indonesia. Under the proposed project, the company would produce basmati rice in Sulawesi, Papua and western Java.

But it is not only the GCC states that are acquiring foreign farm land. The South Korean giant Daewoo attempted to lease half of Madagascar’s arable farmland to grow corn and palm oil. A public outcry followed and the deal fell through by early 2009.

Yet apart from public discontent, there are other concerns with sourcing food from abroad. The countries targeted for investment by the GCC states are poor, and if an inflation-disaster-food-shortage combine swells up in those parts of the world, who is to say that their governments must allow shipments of precious foodstuffs to leave the ports?  Ethiopia is especially prone to bouts of draught and starvation. Moreover, the idea of land acquisitions by foreign companies (and their governments representing them), smacks of neo-colonialism.

What are the alternatives that GCC governments should consider for their food security policies? In recent years, technological and scientific innovations have made the idea of vertical farming a reality. The basic idea of vertical farming is captured in the pictures below; a tall glass skyscraper in an urban setting produces crops hydrophonically; a system which uses mineral solutions but no soil. In fact, the technique recycles all the waste products back into the growing process.

The basic concepts of vertical farming are explain here by it’s main proponent Dr Dickson Despommier- 

Increasing the world’s food output is not only desirable, it’s imperative; population growth by 2050 will mean an extra 3 billion mouths to feed, and 80% of the world’s population will live in cities by that time. Traditional farming practices are not able to cope with the stress that will result on the food supply chain.

Indoor farming has been practiced in greenhouse for some time, but nowhere near the scale of multi-storey buildings constituting an eco-system of their own. The advantages of vertical farming are enormous- with benefits for the economy, the environment and the consumer:

    A vertical farm design for China
  • No weather-related crop failures due to droughts, floods, pests
  • All VF food is grown organically: no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers
  • VF virtually eliminates agricultural runoff by recycling black water
  • VF returns farmland to nature, restoring ecosystem functions and services
  • VF greatly reduces the incidence of many infectious diseases that are acquired at the agricultural interface
  • VF converts black and gray water into potable water by collecting the water of evapotranspiration
  • VF adds energy back to the grid via methane generation from composting non-edible parts of plants and animals
  • VF dramatically reduces fossil fuel use (no tractors, plows, shipping.)
  • VF converts abandoned urban properties into food production centers
  • VF creates sustainable environments for urban centers
  • VF creates new employment opportunities
  • VF could reduce the incidence of armed conflict over natural resources, such as waterand land for agriculture

(list taken from

What is great about the vertical farm concept is that the buildings themselves are situated right in the middle of urban areas, meaning fresh produce literally has to be taken only a few streets away to reach the nearest supermarket or restraint. In fact, some 'farmscraper' designs incorporate a supermarket on the ground floor where the fresh produce is sold. This will not only dramatically reduce transportation costs but will also ensure that produce is incredibly fresh. Because of the techniques used in vertical farming, exotic fruits and vegetables that otherwise would be exported from around the globe could be produced locally all year round.

Designs for possible vertical farm skyscrapers have already been made, and it is only a matter of time before they become cheap enough to build, and governments become more aware of the need for such innovations. The founding father of the modern vertical farming concept, Dr Dickson Despommier, says that a 30-storey city-block-size vertical farm would produce enough food for 50,000 people. With about 160 of these buildings, you could feed the entire population of New York of around 8 million. It currently takes a land mass the size of Virginia state to feed New Yorkers. The savings in cost and land use are no brainers.

 For the Arabian Gulf, vertical farming projects are ideal. The harsh weather conditions and the effects of desertification would be mitigated, while the water needed would be minimal. With plenty to cash to throw at eye-wateringly expensive (and loss-making) projects such as the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, the Gulf states have more than enough money to spend on designing and implementing such projects, particularly in light of Abu Dhabi’s green technologies hub Madar City which will pool the right knowledge and technologies together. Masdar City is hosting the first  prototype Greenmarket system (hydroponic food production facility) developed by BrightFarm Systems and Kiss+Cathcart Architects. This technology utilizes pioneering rooftop and facade mounted sustainable greenhouse designs to integrate hydroponic food production into civic buildings. The layers of vegetation are encased in the walls of the building and provide shade for the building's interior whilst they grow. Once ripe, the crops can be sold or taken to the kitchen.

Inside the vertical farm any number of crops can be produced since variants on each floor can be modified to create the perfect climate. This optimization means vertical farms can produce up to 10 times the amount of crops compared to using traditional methods on the same surface area.

This conceptual design incorporates automotive machines that ensure optimum conditions for growth.

 Even cattle can be farmed in this way. This building has suspended 'fields' where cows graze and roam freely several stories up.

After 30 days they move up to the next spiral to allow the grass to recuperate while chickens replace take their place. This concept brings fresh meat right into the city center and proponents say it gives a much higher quality of life to the livestock. 

Another conceptual design, this time for Dubai has already been submitted by Italian architects Studiomobile. It overcomes the Emirate’s lack of water by cooling and humidifying the suspended greenhouses, and then converts the humidity into fresh water to irrigate the crops inside.

For the Arab countries facing food crises and who have the available cash, buying land in distant, poor countries to supply your own people with food is a risky strategy, and in the long term poses political, security and economic risks. 

The vertical farming idea, as explained above, would be a wise policy decision for ministers to consider, not for representing a longer term saving, but in combing the synergies of dealing with water cosumption issues and producing large amounts of domestically grown produce for the Middle East at the same time.


  1. Wow, that is fascinating. Maybe these vertical farms really will be the way forward. Skyscrapers for living, working and farming.

  2. thanks Cat! various ones are already being built in Singapore, they have living, working space as well as the ultimate garden!

  3. Great article! And great use of the video we watched in class ;)

  4. wow this is an revolutionary concept that i can see being built in the near future. We never know maybe we will all consume the produces from these skyscraper.