Lately, we have seen an increase in people from the Middle East, especially from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, Bahrain and Egypt, who want to set up hydroponics cultivation from different reasons such as economic motives. In the last year, there have been many initiatives from people who want to invest millions in setting up a hydroponics farm. And ultimately it appears that almost all these initiatives fail. Except for a few big ones. For example, figures from India show that not more than 100 greenhouse farms survive out of a total of 2,283 set up across India
The thoughts behind this increase is mainly the idea and the desire to be food-independent. At least that is the story. Well understandable because many countries in the Middle East import 75 to 90% of the food they eat, because the region is too dry and the climatic conditions throughout the year in the region are not so favorable for conventional agriculture. Moreover, due to a growing population, and changing and healthier eating habits, the demand for vegetables and products is increasing. And that is of course a major concern for the future food security of this rapidly developing region. Especially the political developments force some countries to take action … you think?
The advantages of hydroponics over traditional agriculture should motivate people and money in these countries to get it from the ground. The technology to deal with water more efficiently (up to 95%), and where water evaporation does not take place, and the water is recycled in a closed and controlled environment, is there. And it is precisely in these countries that the biggest challenge is not water but controlling the indoor temperatures of the greenhouses, and this requires extensive and advanced ventilation and cooling techniques. When this does not happen and the necessity of this is missing, you will see many greenhouses that are built but are not resistant to these high temperatures. The harvest is therefore less and no longer profitable for the farmer. Although some big companies predict a golden future, the reality is different, because the choice and reason are not aligned with reality
Distinguishes commercial hydroponics greenhouses and sustainable and social greenhouses.
What we now observe and notice is the questions that many investors confuse these two applications of hydroponics. And actually want to see both integrated and expect this. The image of a cozy greenhouse with vegetables and fruit opposite a factory hall with rows of vegetables of the same species is not the same. And preferably all for 1 million dollars and profitable. And of course this will go wrong. Because the most important question they forget. Is there a market?
The contradiction of this need in practice
Grain: When we look at the eating habits of many Arab countries, we see that wheat dominates the average diet. Bread is an important part of the diet. The region of North Africa and the Middle East, in other words the MENA region, plays an important role in the global wheat market in terms of grain prospects. In the 2017/18 season, shipping will grow in this direction, despite the increase in wheat production in the Middle East and North Africa compared to last year (41.2 million tonnes and 17.8 million tonnes compared to 39.9%). million tons million tons and 14 million tons, harvested in 2016/17 MY, respectively). Unfortunately, we also see a greater demand for products against the background of population growth and, as a result, a growing import. Protests from rising bread prices are only increasing.
Meat: What we are currently seeing is that the demand for meat in this region is increasing enormously. Some countries need to import more than 60%. The Saudis, for example, prefer sheepmeat to beef and consume 5,286 kilograms of mutton per capita in 2016, and in Egypt the situation is reversed, with the residents using 9.27 kilograms of beef per capita. Now this is very little compared to our consumption of 75 kilos. But a fact is that in addition to grain meat is a fixed part of their diet.
Vegetables: Everyone who has been on holiday in the Middle East knows that vegetables are not the most important part of the meal. You can easily name the fruit and vegetables that are used. They are onions, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, cauliflower, cucumber, cabbage, beans, eggplant, lemons, apples, bananas, oranges, grapes, strawberry, watermelon, grapefruit, dates and olives. So leafy vegetables as we know them you will not encounter much here. It is therefore very strange that some “hydroponics companies” focus on micro greens and lettuce in these regions. It is something like breeding pigs in these countries. The population does not eat it, but the tourists eat this in expensive restaurants.
Economic choices regarding greenhouse construction
There are successful commercial projects in Saudi Arabia realized by Dutch and Spanish companies. The products that grow here are therefore sold to the public by supermarkets. (mainly tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers) But also in countries like Kuwait, Iran, Dubai and the largest state in Oman. However, we are talking about million projects here. Projects that would not have got off the ground with the help of governments and investors. To give an impression about the costs
- High Tech: the frame of the greenhouse can be made of steel or aluminum covered with glass, polyethylene or polycarbonate. A complete computerized, automated drip irrigation system (which monitors EC, pH, irrigation duration and frequency). Cooling is active and includes heating systems. Yields will be the highest with tomatoes averaging 90 kgm2 per year with an investment over €100,- to €300,- m2.
- Medium Tech: the frame of the greenhouse can be made of steel covered with double polyethylene or rigid plastic. And drip irrigation is managed with computers (irrigation duration and frequency). Cooling can be passive or active, and with or without heating. Yields will be moderate with tomatoes averaging up to 45 kgm2 per year with an investment below €100,-m2.
- Low Tech: the frame of the greenhouse can be made of steel or wood covered with single polyethylene film. Plants are grown in the soil floor and drip irrigated with manual control. Cooling is passive and there is no heat source. Yields will often be low with tomatoes averaging about 20 kgm2 per year with an investment of no more than € 35,-m2.
These are the prices that are usually used. But when you want to buy the most expensive greenhouse, the statement that you often hear is that in most cases you simply put a expensive refrigerators in the desert. Therefore, you can not speak of sustainable developments here. From time to time you can see that solar energy or a salinisation machine is being used. But of course the concept is not right. You don’t put a sauna at the North Pole to grow some vegetables. At least I have not seen them do that yet.
But beside the economic and food reasons there are two important developments that will have a much more negative impact on the Arab world. Especially in the area of health. We will see that the human immune system will decline in the coming years due to the increasing influence of leafy vegetables in the daily meal. If you think that lettuce is healty and a vegetable, you are wrong. First, lettuce is not a vegetable. It is a conceived product. In reality, it is an herb with specific characteristics. Read here for the article about the nitrate hazzerd and the history of lettuce as a opiumproduct
Lettuce (97% water) is actually a way to transport chilled water from the land (desert) to your plate. It is cheaper to drink a glass of chilled water with a mineral supplement. But lettuce is big business.
What should be the goal
The future of farming is providing communities fresh product growing by the community in a sustainable manner. Getting closer to the consumer not only reduces our carbon footprint, but also increases taste, nutrition and shelf life. But especially to involve the farmer and not the invester. And above all eat healthy food.
© Ed van der Post