Farming for the future: Hydroponics’ role in the GCC’s journey to food security
By Valentina Olabi, Research Specialist, GPCA
The urgency for GCC food security
The arid landscapes and water scarce nature of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have meant that ensuring a stable and sustainable food supply has been a long-abiding challenge. Despite all six GCC countries being significantly food secure in terms of food quality, the region’s reliance on imports (85% of GCC food is imported) can result in potential problems in the event of a supply chain bottleneck that limits food entry into the countries.
Figure 1: The advantages of hydroponic systems: resource use optimization, quality control, optimized harvest
Source: GPCA Research (2023)
The implications of this in upcoming years can be critical. As the GCC population steadily increases, expecting to reach 58.3 million people by 2030 and 72.3 million by 2050, decision-makers in the region realize the importance of developing methods that can feed this increasing population without any hindrances or bottlenecks. As such, the region is investing in numerous resources to develop methods of food production that can mitigate the region’s climatic disadvantages. Hydroponic farming emerges as a promising solution.
Hydroponics – The potential solution to the GCC’s agricultural landscape
The GCC’s agri-nutrient sector is among the world’s most well-established, accounting for 17.2% of total global production in 2021. Despite this, it is the actual production of food that limits the region’s ability to be self-sufficient. Hydroponic farming describes a soilless agritech method of farming that utilizes 90% less water than traditional agriculture. Because of the GCC’s water scarcity, right from the outset, this method shows a key reason as to how it can be beneficial to GCC countries. Aside from aligning with the GCC’s water scarcity, hydroponic farming presents numerous advantages that are compatible with the GCC’s current farming landscape. These are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 describes the various advantages that hydroponics can provide to the GCC’s agricultural landscape. First, the lack of soil requirement consequently means that there is no chance of soil erosion and degradation. Compared to traditional agricultural practices, where soil depletion and erosion can cause long-term damage to land, growing plants in a soilless environment means that land and soil are protected from damage.
The design of hydroponic systems also means that 60% less fertilizer is utilized (on average) compared to traditional practices. This presents various advantages from the environmental aspect. The reduced use of fertilizer decreases the risk of runoff pollution, groundwater contamination, and negative impacts on surrounding ecosystems. The controlled set-ups also allow for meticulous supervision of environmental factors, including temperature, humidity, and light. This can optimize plant growth, reduce energy consumption, and ensure efficient nutrient management and uptake in the plants.
Furthermore, hydroponic systems work indoors. This results in the production and supply of food being available year-round. With technological advancements, these systems would reduce the need for GCC food imports and would subsequently aid them in increasing domestic production. This would additionally contribute to reinforcing local farmers and food systems, fostering regional economic growth, and reducing dependency on external suppliers.
Hydroponics – Government investments and regional economic growth
GCC decision-makers’ awareness regarding the need for a domestic food supply has resulted in substantial investments going into the prospect of hydroponic farms. For example, this year, Oman-based company NKK embarked on a joint venture with an American agritech company to introduce advanced hydroponic and vertical farming technology to Oman. This goal was introduced with the intention of amplifying Oman’s national food output and reducing their future import costs.
Various other ventures and investments have been undertaken by GCC countries to harness hydroponic technology in the region, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2 illustrates how all GCC countries have taken initiatives toward the adoption of hydroponic technologies. This is in alignment with their shared objective of achieving self-sufficiency in food production and implementing National Food Security Strategies. By investing in innovative agricultural methods like hydroponics, GCC members have the capacity to secure a reliable and consistent regional food supply.
Challenges and future prospects
Despite the undeniable possibilities that hydroponics present for the GCC, there are still challenges preventing its wide-scale regional implementation. Firstly, as of now, hydroponics are primarily used for the growth and cultivation of leafy greens. For the GCC to become entirely self-sufficient, this technology needs to evolve to be able to produce other necessary crops, such as wheats and grains. Moreover, although current GCC hydroponic systems are over 90% more water-efficient compared to traditional farming methods, ensuring a consistent and reliable supply of high-quality water is crucial to safeguard the health of the crops.
Figure 2: GCC hydroponic investments
Source: GPCA Research (2023)
While hydroponic systems can also significantly reduce the risk of certain plant-harming pests and diseases, they are not immune to all types of plant health issues. As such, implementing effective pest and disease management strategies is of crucial importance to ensure crop health.
Nonetheless, decision-makers’ approach towards hydroponics in the GCC is synchronized. This means that all GCC countries recognize the potential and importance of hydroponics as a suitable solution to address food security and are all heavily investing in this agritech technology. This is arguably the most important factor towards hydroponic implementation regionally, as further investment and alignment between all six countries will be the key to faster progression and the solidity of the regional food supply chain.
Figure 3 describes the two major ways in which harmonization between GCC decision-makers is crucial towards implementing hydroponics. As the scaling up of farming operations to meet commercial demands and accommodate the growing population presents logistical challenges, particularly in hydroponics, which still requires substantial development, careful planning, operations, and market collaboration are crucial to ensure a smoothly functioning future supply chain. Furthermore, ensuring the long-term sustainability and resilience of hydroponic farming in the face of evolving environmental and economic conditions is a continuous challenge that requires ongoing research and adaptation. With all GCC countries being aware of this, as well as the food security benefits hydroponics can bring to the region, accordance between all countries can accelerate the deployment of these farms in the region.
Figure 3: Regional alignment’s role in facilitating hydroponics implementation
The GCC countries have all been actively involved in implementing long-term food security measures to reduce their reliance on imports of agricultural produce. Due to the region’s arid land and water scarcity, agritech investments that don’t succumb to the region’s climatic disadvantages have become increasingly popular. Hydroponic farming has been recognized as one of the pivotal technologies required to strengthen regional food security, due to its benefits in terms of water efficiency, year-round production, and reduced environmental impact.
Although hydroponics is a highly promising approach for the future of agriculture in the region, several challenges still need to be addressed before wide-scale implementation can occur. The main ones involve expanding the range of crops suitable for hydroponics to encompass everything from fruits and vegetables to wheat and grains, as well as ensuring a consistent, high-quality water supply to the farms.
Substantial R&D and regional collaboration between decision-makers will be crucial for the success of hydroponics in the GCC’s evolving food supply chain. However, Qatar’s remarkable 400% increase in domestic production within a two-year timeframe can serve as compelling evidence that with the correct investments and developments, the GCC has the potential to revolutionize its agricultural landscape.
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