Mitigating Imported Vegetable Dependency in the United Arab Emirates Through Indoor Farms: The Financial and Environmental Impact
CitationGhonima, Omar. 2020. Mitigating Imported Vegetable Dependency in the United Arab Emirates Through Indoor Farms: The Financial and Environmental Impact. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
AbstractThe world’s population is projected to increase by 30% in 2050, to 9.5 billion persons. Meeting society’s need will require 60% more food to be produced than is done today, all in the face of inevitable increases in the price of water, energy, and agricultural resources. Such a stark picture mandates the finding of solutions outside conventional farming methods to ensure the survival of future generations (Al-Kodmany, 2018). Throughout the world, billions of dollars in subsidies for the traditional agriculture industry have been made by governments in order to protect consumers from food scarcity and rising prices (Goodman, 2015). Such a practice impedes innovation. New methods such as indoor farming could provide promising alternatives in support of increased global demand.
Indoor farming is the practice of growing produce in controlled sterilized environments powered by Light-emitting diode (LED). This practice marks a recent shift from the use of a conventional soil base to applying other techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics, or aeroponics .The indoor farm concept is a novel way of growing produce that reduces water consumption, the use of pesticides and herbicides, while generating high quantities of nutritious, quality fresh food year-round. The technology is largely independent of weather conditions, thus providing a solution to an arid region’s future food security predicament.
As a desert terrain country the United Arab Emirates (UAE) struggles to produce its own food. The present research, a first of its kind in the Middle East, addresses the critical question of whether the UAE government should shift its current emphasis on importing food (85% of its fruits and vegetable produce) to building its own food sources through systematized indoor farming. I hypothesize that indoor tomato farming would be more cost-effective by requiring a lower operational yearly expenditure while generating higher profits than does the current process of importing tomatoes in the UAE. My research targets the environmental impact of both conventional open field farming along with the transportation impact of exporting tomatoes to the UAE, versus supplying these by means of in-house indoor farms. A second and related hypothesis is that indoor farming would have a lower environmental impact over a given year as compared to the importing of tomatoes.
To test these hypotheses, I defined and quantified the environmental impact of both the import model versus that of in-house indoor farming by pursuing a comprehensive literature review in addition to working with a farm in the UAE to gather all necessary data. I then built economic and life- cycle assessment models to measure the economic and environmental impacts, respectively, of both approaches. Last, I applied a sensitivity analysis to the environmental model by looking at an alternative energy source, specifically photovoltaics (PV), for indoor farms, and an alternative growing scenario, specifically heated greenhouses, for imported tomatoes. While results reveal both environmental disadvantages and advantages of the indoor farming of tomatoes over the importing of them, nevertheless, the current structure of indoor farms and their projected profitability based on a specified interest amortization of a variety of loan schemes and periods shows that in the long term (15 years) they are a more profitable business venture than the import model.
This study will likely be of value to UAE government policymakers, to entrepreneurs thinking of starting an indoor farm, to the UAE’s sustainability and food security plans, to environmentalists broadly and their commitment to understanding the effects of indoor grown tomatoes. While this study is aimed at the UAE, it certainly has an eye on countless other countries—especially those in the Gulf Cooperation Council with desert regions that are heavily dependent on food imports.
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