The Leading Voices in Food
E171: Vertical Farming in Qatar – Promise & Challenges
Today, we’re exploring an agricultural innovation in the state of Qatar in Western Asia. Qatar is a wealthy, densely populated country located on the Northeast coast of the Arabian peninsula and leads the world in liquified natural gas exports. But the country’s desert climate is harsh and the agriculture there is challenging. That’s where shipping containers, artificial light and vertical farming techniques come into play. Our guest today is horticulturalist Mohamed Hassouna from the Qur-anic Botanic Garden in Qatar. He and his partners at the University of Arizona are developing a shipping container vertical farming model as a way to expand local food production.
Mohamed Hassouna is a Horticulturist at the Qur’anic Botanic Garden (QBG), a member of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. He joined Qatar Foundation in late 2010. He guides and supervises agricultural laborers, coordinating work schedules and performing evaluations, and prescribes fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other compounds required for plant care and development. And, he contributes to QBG’s continual education-based conservation programs targeting the Qatari community, especially in the fields of food security, forestation and plant propagation. He is an alumnus of the Advanced International Training Programme on Plant Breeding & Seed Production and Plant Genetic Resources at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, Sweden – Classes of 2008 and 2013. He is finalizing a Master of Science degree in Sustainable Agriculture & Environment and in addition holds a Higher Diploma – Graduate Education – in the same field and a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture Sciences & Education, which he gained while studying in Egypt.
So first let’s set the stage for our listeners. Could you describe the agricultural challenges in Qatar given the country’s dry climate?
Thank you for your introduction. Qatar, as other countries located in the Arabia peninsula and also in the Arabian states, are facing very harsh weather conditions. Particularly in Qatar, the weather here is hot desert weather characterized by sparse precipitations and high summer temperature experienced with high humidity, high solar radiation and poor soil additionally to strong winds. And this limits the agriculture sector to the months of October to April. Every year, this is the agriculture season here from October to April then the temperature is fine and can allow for producing vegetables. Also the land, the Arab land, suitable for agriculture is very limited. The last inventory here in the state estimated that there is only 60,000 hectares available for the agriculture sector. Also, we have a challenge with water. Water scarcity. The agriculture sector here in Qatar consumes 90% of the available water for the state. A big challenge is also that the agriculture sector consume about 36% of the available water in the aquifer. And as I told you, we have very minimum amount of rain every year. It’s about 80 millimeters on average, every year. So production of agriculture in Qatar is difficult.
Well, the picture you paint is really striking and I can imagine those challenges. So what role could your Botanic garden play in addressing food security in the country, closing the food security gap for communities, and also attending to the environment?
Yes! The Qur-anic Botanic Garden is an active member in the community development sector in Qatar Foundation. It takes the issue of community awareness and education from school students to housewife to training even professionals to engage in the investment in agriculture. We established at the Qur-anic Botanic Garden an extra curriculum educational program for school students – from early stage to especially secondary schools students – to learn about the challenges of food security in Qatar, and what are the technologies they can learn. Students are leading the future here in Qatar. Without students being aware about the challenges facing the food security and the agriculture production, we cannot guarantee a future outlook of food security. Also the Qur-anic Botanic Garden has been partnered with Qatar Development Bank, and this is the official bank assigned to develop industry like also agriculture sector. So, anyone from Qatar who would like to take a loan to invest in the agriculture sector, we have the mission to train them on the latest technology of horticulture practices. They can use or they can establish greenhouses or they can establish other modern system for a production of vegetables. Either in their homes or in farms outside. Also Qur-anic Botanic Garden established a hotline for household people. There is now community farming in Qatar. People would like to plant their own vegetables in their home. The hotline is answering all their inquiries about seed selections, seedlings, how to prepare soil, how to make pesticides.
So let’s talk a little more deeply now about vertical farming. Can you describe what that is?
Vertical farming involves growing crops in controlled indoor environments with precise lab nutrients and temperatures. In vertical farming, plants are stacked in a layers that may reach several storage unit stories – from personal community scale vegetables or herbal growing to vast building for commercial production of a wide range of crops. Due to the pressure for agriculture land, this makes us look to maximization for food production. Model technology like vertical farming is increasingly something we are turning to for greater crop yield.
I’m envisioning in my mind what the vertical farming could look like. And I’m thinking that in order to produce enough food say to feed a population, you need an awful lot of containers and an awful lot of technology to accompany those containers. Can that be done on a large enough scale?
Before we answer this, we need to go through the pro and cons for vertical farming. If we can speak first about advantages of vertical farming, we can say that vertical farming can ensure crop production year round in desert harsh weather regions like Qatar or other countries in the Arabian Peninsula. And also a controlled growing condition in a vertical farm allow production without chemical pesticides used when needed to deal with any problems from insects. Also, because crops in vertical farming are growing under controlled environmental conditions, they are safe from extreme weather events, such as drought, high temperature, severe winds that also we are facing here. Hydroponic growing techniques used in vertical farming use about 70% less of water than normal agriculture. So, growing the crops indoor reduces the use of tractors and other machinery that also produce a lot of CO2 and this is could be a climate friendly industry. So this is some advantage behind vertical farming that can give us strong signal to say yes, vertical farming can feed a lot of people around the world. Especially in the area that have these two main challenges, availability of vertical soil and a scarcity of water.
Oh, it’s so interesting to hear you speak about this. So it sounds like you’re optimistic that the technologies can continue to develop and that the vertical farming approach could really help contribute to national food security in your country. But so what do you think are the main opportunities there and what do you think the main challenges are?
Thank you for this question, Kelly. Indeed, I’m optimistic about this industry. Cost of land and building for vertical farming is not easy and it’s not also available for all countries and for all people. It needs solar isolation, it needs air conditioners. It needs precise lighting. It needs operation computers. So it needs also specific types of nutrients to be introduced in the cycle of production for fertilization. Here, you bring all the inputs of production cycle. In what you add to the water or to directly to the plants. So the cost is high on the energy side also. You use high amount of energy at a time we are calling everyone to reduce the use of energy and avoid production of CO2. Also, you’re aware of expansion of organic agriculture everywhere in the world. So, there are now questions about vertical farming certification. How we can certify or how we can consider merging between organic agriculture and vertical farming. As I said, we use all chemical nutrients in vertical farming to provide the plant with sufficient amount of all of other nutrients required for production. In this case, organic agriculture certification cannot be applied. And scientists in USDA and FAO and many other organization are looking to find a way they can provide a product from vertical farming certified under organic agriculture systems. Two points now, the limited number of crop species in vertical farming. Also, you cannot produce these tall plants that you can grow everywhere or creeping plants that grow everywhere in the field, in the natural field. So you are limited with this layers of a production. So mainly you produce leaves and produce and herbal plants. So we have limited number of crops. Still, also pollination. In natural, we have a bees that make pollinations for the production of vegetables, even for fruits, every, everything. But here, we doesn’t have a pollination so we need to go with artificial pollination and this also extra cost to have a special type of bees that you need to put inside the glass houses or inside the building you produce in to secure pollination to complete the cycle of production.