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A 70% drop in river levels. Farmers pumping more than 30% water. This, just before an unprecedented 40C heatwave reduced houses to smouldering ash. It smacks of a future world when in fact, this is 2022 in the UK. As the heatwave is set to return later this month to Britain and Europe, record-breaking hot temperatures look set to become an annual occurrence, causing more drought and wreaking havoc on crops.
Droughts pose one of the biggest threats to sustainable development. Since 2000, the number and duration of droughts has risen 29%, with an estimated 55 million people globally directly affected by droughts each year. All alarming statistics, by any stretch.
And before you think this won’t affect the wetter, cooler isles of the UK, think again. According to the United Nations, no country is immune to drought, as this summer here is proving. By 2050, droughts have the potential to affect over three-quarters of the world’s population. In fact, the UN has warned that drought is a hidden global crisis that risks becoming “the next pandemic”.
The impact of drought has immense power to not just create major disruption to the global food supply chain but accelerate world hunger. So could CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture) farming be the saviour?
Controlling the environment, optimising yield
CEA farming is being gradually rolled out across the globe, establishing greenhouses, vertical farms, polytunnels, aquaponics and other automated growing environments.
Prolonged droughts are proving destructive for many traditional farmers where outdoor crops are grown in fields, even in regions where this has not previously been an issue. The biggest advantage of indoor farming is that it allows growers to optimise the growing process for higher yields. Droughts, storms, insect infestations and all the other hazards of growing outdoors are eliminated.
This is because indoor farming technology – AgTech – has the ability to control the environment, by monitoring and measuring key areas including light, water, air, temperature, humidity, oxygen, and soil to ensure optimal plant productivity and yield.
Indoor farming is more energy and cost efficient
Another benefit is that indoor farming provides a profitable opportunity for growers, and it has the potential to work particularly well in extreme climates. In environments with high temperatures and year-round sun, such as Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, renewable energy such as solar power can be harnessed to power LEDs, to not only become more energy efficient but reduce operating costs.
In fact, researchers at Wageningen University found that vertical farms in the Netherlands needed more than three times as much electricity as greenhouses to produce the same crop. However, in hot climates such as Abu Dhabi, the variation between electricity requirements was far less.
There is even more advanced research being carried out at the Technical University of Munich in Weihenstephan has also revealed the potential for wheat crops to be grown in desert regions using indoor farming methods.
AgTech is a hot investment opportunity
CEA farming is big business which is about to get even bigger, with the potential for 25-30% growth in the AgTech start-up segment by 2025.
Asia is just one of the international hotspots for growth, as too is the Middle East, where it is highly reliant on imports. Industry reports stated that AgTech start-ups in India received around $1 billion between 2017 and 2020, with the country being the third largest receiver of AgTech funding in the world. In the Middle East, start-up Pure Harvest Smart Farms which grows food in glasshouses in the UAE desert, will soon expand its operations to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, after securing $60 million in funding, and Abu Dhabi will host the new Aerofarms facility thanks to a share of a $150 million national investment pot. It is expected to open in the early part of 2022 and aims to grow lettuces, tomatoes and berries.
What all of this adds up to is a unique opportunity to establish a firm foundation in sustainable food production and food security for the long-term, while moving towards a decentralised, localised food system through harnessing AgTech innovation.