Qatar University investing in Harvesting sustainable bioresearch demonstrate that it pays to go down this road regardless of the country’s physical attributes to its contrary. So here is how it is being implemented.
Harvesting sustainable bioresearch
The innovative cultivation of important crops has reduced the impact of food production on Qatar’s environment
It’s essential to Qatar University’s vision and mission to be a catalyst for sustainable development, helping the country to diversify away from its roots in oil and gas. Research into bioresources plays an important role in achieving that goal, whether that is by investigating alternative sources of fuel or ensuring that the population has a secure supply of food in the long term.
The university’s Centre of Sustainable Development aims to ensure that Qatar makes the most of its natural resources in a sustainable way. The centre performs research into food and water security, renewable energy, the governance of natural resources and waste management. Because of water scarcity, limited arable land and high temperatures in Qatar, securing a sustainable food production pipeline is challenging. Consequently, this is a high priority for the centre, and a new plant is currently under construction in the north of Qatar for the production of food, fuel and health products.
One of the most important research initiatives is the Algal Technologies Programme (ATP), led by Dr Hareb Mohammad Al-Jabri and his team. Qatar’s environment offers a unique biodiversity in terms of the presence of microalgae and cyanobacteria – a type of microorganism that thrives on sunlight and CO2 – and ideal year-round growing conditions due to its hot and dry climate. “We want to take advantage of the high temperatures, abundant sunlight and saline water we have here in Qatar,” explains Dr Al-Jabri. “All these conditions make cultivation of traditional crops challenging, but microalgae can thrive under our conditions, and can be a great alternative source of food and feed.”
The ATP covers five key areas of research: culture collection (comparing different algae species); biofuel (converting biomass into carbon neutral fuel); environment and bioremediation (carbon capture and wastewater treatment); health (utilisation of algae in health foods or supplements) and animal feed. Microalgae are being investigated as a source of feed for both poultry and fish (aquaculture), because researchers believe that they have the nutritional potential to provide necessary proteins, lipids and carbohydrates without requiring arable land or fresh water to grow.
In 2011, researchers at the centre began investigating different strains of algae from the local environment – their growth patterns, biochemical composition, the types of conditions in which they grew best. The ATP now houses more than 200 different algae isolates sourced from the Qatar environment in its Culture Collection for Cyanobacteria and Microalgae. Among its discoveries are “super strains” that contain higher levels of protein, fatty acids and carbohydrates, as well as secondary metabolites such as omega-3 fatty acids, beta carotene, and phycobiliproteins, which carry a higher market value. “To grow these, we need lots of sun, seawater, carbon dioxide, and any type of land,” he adds. “We can also recycle certain compounds from industry, such as urea, which is typically regarded as waste and so can’t be sold on, but can be used as a source of nitrogen.” Urea can be supplemented to algae as a fertiliser, and is necessary to support its growth.
“This type of project is good for the diversification of the economy in Qatar because it’s not dependent on oil and gas, and mitigates carbon emissions,” says Dr Al-Jabri. “We help the environment by recycling damaging chemicals, and we’re using seawater so as not to impact the scarce fresh water supply.” The department has previously looked at producing affordable and sustainable biofuels that could be used by the airline industry to reduce its carbon footprint – however this became less feasible economically because of a fall in oil prices. “Our research outcomes were good, so when this does become feasible again, we’ll be ready. But at the moment our focus is on food security for Qatar rather than fuel,” he adds.
Qatar University has been working with students and research departments in universities globally, including Murdoch University in Australia, the University of Liege in Belgium, University of Nantes in France, Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and the University of Texas in Austin. International students can visit the campus in Doha to get to know the desert environment at first hand. “Students are the main wheel of our research, they make it active,” says Dr Al-Jabri, “this is so important for knowledge exchange and to spread our networks and collaborate on different projects.”
The university has also garnered financial and research support from both the private and public sector in Qatar. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry has helped the centre fund a number of start-ups focused on algae-based products, and there are numerous corporate partnerships with companies such as Total and Qatar Airways. Total is working with the university on research into biofuel made from microalgae as well as carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS). Such partnerships are not only financial sponsorships, but also explore intellectual property sharing and will help the corporations involved reach their own sustainability goals.
Another key partnership is with Japanese company Chiyoda, a specialist in agricultural and vegetable production technology. Working with Chiyoda, the university has designed and constructed a designated vegetable factory plant located on campus. The aim is to build a facility where the conditions can be controlled easily with LED lighting so that leafy crops can be produced at any time of the year. This means that the harsh desert environment in Qatar does not have to influence production, so there is continuity and consistency in how the products are grown.
The plan for the ATP is to scale up the production of microalgae and cyanobacteria as part of the university’s forward strategy. This year the cultivation will increase to two hectares of land, and by 2025 it’s hoped that production will cover as much as 100 hectares. “We have a concrete strategy to start producing this on a commercial scale, and we’re moving in the right direction,” says Dr Al-Jabri. Together with a new food production plant in the north of Qatar, this research has the potential to harness sustainable food production for years to come.
On the occasion of the World Soil Day on 5 December, we are reminded of the Soil pollution a risk to our health and food security is no more a subject for specialists only but one that should be a concern for us all.
Each year, the world marks World Soil Day on 5 December to raise awareness about the growing challenges in soil management and soil biodiversity loss, and encourage governments, communities and individuals around the world to commit to improving soil health.
“We depend, and will continue to depend, on the ecosystem services provided by soils,” explains United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) soil expert Abdelkader Bensada.
While soil pollution traditionally has not received the same attention as issues like tree-planting, global momentum picked up in 2018, when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published a ground-breaking study: Soil Pollution: A Hidden Reality.
The report found that the main anthropogenic sources of soil pollution are the chemicals used in or produced as byproducts of industrial activities; domestic, livestock and municipal wastes (including wastewater); agrochemicals; and petroleum-derived products.
These chemicals are released to the environment accidentally, for example from oil spills or leaching from landfills, or intentionally, through use of fertilizers and pesticides, irrigation with untreated wastewater, or land application of sewage sludge.RELATED
The report found that soil pollution has an adverse impact on food security in two ways –it can reduce crop yields due to toxic levels of contaminants, and crops grown in polluted soils are unsafe for consumption by animals and humans. It urged governments to help reverse the damage and encouraged better soil management practices to limit agricultural pollution.
In follow up to the 2018 study, UNEP, the Global Soils Partnership, the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, the World Health Organization and the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretariat are working on another report on the extent and future trends of soil pollution, including risks and impacts on health, the environment and food security. Scheduled to be released in February 2021, it builds on another UNEP report – Towards a pollution-free planet.
“Soil pollution can lead to the emergence of new pests and diseases by changing the balance of ecosystems and causing the disappearance of predators or competing species that regulate their biomass. It also contributes to the spreading of antimicrobial resistant bacteria and genes, limiting humanity’s ability to cope with pathogens,” says Bensada.
Pollution can also cause the quality of soil to dwindle over time, making it harder to grow crops. Currently, the degradation of land and soils is affecting at least 3.2 billion people – 40 per cent of the world’s population.
FAO’s Revised World Soil Charter recommends that national governments implement regulations on soil pollution and limit the accumulation of contaminants beyond established levels in order to guarantee human health and wellbeing, a healthy environment and safe food.
Contaminated soil is also a major cause of land degradation – an issue that is at the heart of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030. Led by UNEP, FAO and partners, the initiative is a global call to action to scale up restoration of terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems over the next 10 years. This includes promoting sustainable practices to improve soil management.
“Soil has a key role to play in the UN Decade through its ecosystem functions as it affects water regulation, nutrient recycling, food production, climate change and the biodiversity of terrestrial ecosystems,” says Bensada. “Transitioning from soil degradation to practices that restore soil is critical to ensure the food security and wellbeing of generations to come.”
HortiDaily‘s story on Jordanian women trained on modern agricultural technology published on 29 October 2020 is about empowering young women with leadership skillsets in the agricultural sector. This should not come as a surprise whereas elsewhere in the MENA region, Arab women are thriving in science and math education.
Sahara Forest Project and Al Hussein Technical University (HTU) completed the first phase of the Technical Training Program in Agricultural Technology, where 15 female trainees from seven different universities took part in a field tour of the Sahara Forest Project site in Aqaba.
This program comes to support and empower young women to obtain employment opportunities and the skills required to take leadership positions in the agricultural sector and support the applications of modern agricultural technology in Jordan.
Director of Sahara Forest Project in Jordan, Frank Utsola, expressed his pride in participating in bettering the opportunities of a group of young Jordanian women and widen their horizons to change the future of the agricultural sector in Jordan. “The young women were excited. During the tour, they asked about everything, every tiny detail, which gave me confidence in this group and their ability to find new ideas and applications in the agricultural sector and supports their visions for the future of agriculture in Jordan.”
Ms. Zein Habjoka, Program Manager at HTU was also positive, saying: “Today we launch a new path for the active female workforce in the agricultural sector. Today we offer students the opportunities, skills, and knowledge required to enable them to assume leadership positions and highly skilled jobs in the agricultural sector.”
Yasmine, one of the participants in the program, added: “Participating in this program and interacting with the project managers helped me a lot to understand what I want and how I can achieve it. Here I learned that there are many applications of agricultural technology that may help Jordan make use of its resources better and overcome the food security challenges that it faces.”
The female training program is supported by the Norwegian government and Costa Crociere Foundation. The importance of the program stems from the fact that food and water security is one of the most important objectives on the national agenda in Jordan, as it has become imperative to empower the younger generation to support small and large projects that work on the principle of sustainability in energy, water and food.
The training program was designed to utilize partnerships between the academic and industrial sectors, whereby expert Ruba Al-Zoubi and Zeina Fakhreddin guided the trainees throughout the course of the training, in addition to cooperating with the Mira Association to develop irrigation and agricultural methods.
The project harnesses renewable resources such as seawater and solar energy (panels seen on the roof of the building in the picture above) to produce desalinated water and cool greenhouses, which allows the cultivation of all types of crops throughout the year and makes the use of arid lands possible.
Sahara Forest Project was inaugurated in Jordan in 2017 under the patronage of His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway.
The current demonstration facility is located 12 kilometres outside the city centre of Aqaba. It uses saltwater, sunlight and desert areas to produce vegetables, freshwater, biomass and clean energy. The ambition of the project is to rapidly scale up- It is the understanding of the parties that the new land will have an area of 200,000 SQM allocated to develop the project, and another 300,000 SQM for further roll-out.
“Badia Farms is the first commercial vertical farm to launch in the GCC. We officially started operations in the heart of Dubai in 2016, but the seeds were planted further back. My background is in engineering and banking. I first took the entrepreneurial leap in Saudi Arabia in the hospitality sector by opening multiple unique restaurant concepts.” That’s how Omar Al Jundi, Founder & CEO of Badia Farms, one of the speakers at the upcoming Agritecture Xchange, introduces himself.
Mesmerized by hydroponics
When he decided to enter his next venture, he says “I knew it had to be both challenging and able to add value and make a difference to our society and communities. When I was introduced to the concept of hydroponics, I was mesmerized with this new technique of growing where we don’t require any soil, we can recycle 90% of the water, and it can be grown in a fully closed environment, without even sunlight! Years before we launched I learned as much from experts, conferences, courses, and by working in a high-tech greenhouse facility in Holland.”
Food security is one of the main issues in the MENA region, and the development of sustainable farming is crucial. “We have seen this first hand during the early days of the Covid pandemic,” Omar says. “Produce supply chains were halted, and many countries (especially in MENA) had to reassess their long-term plans and fast-track their commitment to AgTech models such as vertical farming.”
The choice to go vertical
Vertical farming and AgTech is needed in the GCC. Why? Omar explains: “Over-dependence on imported produce and the simple fact that traditional framing does not work in our arid desert climate. I want to tackle an issue that will make a difference to society while preserving our natural resources such as water. Badia products are pesticide and herbicide-free. Since our crops are grown naturally in sterile, soil-free mediums, along with the controlled environment, it removes the need for harmful additives. We can also harvest fresh produce all year round. Our harvest yields 4-8 times the amount of crops in the same space compared to conventional soil farming. As a former restaurateur, it has been amazing to be able to work with the top chefs and restaurants in the UAE and be able to supply them with fresh, better than organic flavourful products that wouldn’t be available to them otherwise. The journey from food to table is much shorter.”
Optimal growth conditions
In this vertical farming environment, Badia Farms is able to control every aspect of the ecosystem to ensure optimal growth conditions are provided for each crop. “For example, our facilities utilize LEDs, artificial lighting to replace the sunlight, we control and monitor all environmental inputs (humidity, temperature, CO2), and we use computer linked dosing units to schedule the irrigation and feed formulas,” Omar points out. “Lastly, our hydroponic growing methods use 90% less water compared to open field growing, and since we recirculate our water there’s no wastage.”
There were also some challenges along the way to achieving this, as AgTech and modern farming are still very new to the region. “The biggest challenge is there aren’t off the shelf solutions that we can purchase and implement immediately,” Omar says. “In the case of vertical farming, which is still at an infancy stage globally, we had to design our own grow system to form our IP and ensure we have a commercial operation that will yield high-quality products and profits to ensure we stay in business. We surely need a lot more support from the government and private sectors for this industry to see the light. For example, the government can support the industry by introducing cost-effective initiatives that reduce the operational cost that will ensure the viability of the projects. Educating the public and consumers on the benefits of modern farming and vertical farming is very important to ensure the continuity of this new industry. We are seeing more regional and global VC’s and investment funds interested in the AgTech sector in our region, but they haven’t made the big investments yet!”
Opportunities in the Middle East
Asked what advice Omar would give to people looking into breaking into the UAE food/ag market, he says: “What’s great right now is that we have barely scratched the surface in the MENA AgTech sector, so there are so many opportunities, which has been propelled by the pandemic. The UAE is an open economy, I suggest whoever is interested to enter the market to come and meet with the different governmental entities, to meet with distributors, understand the market dynamics, pricing, etc. Come and do the work themselves vs hiring a consultant to do the job. The journey won’t be easy. But even with the advent of technology farming is still what it was hundreds of years ago: to grow something needs constant attention, passion, and patience.”
Badia Farms has a lot in store for the future, like increasing their product offering, expanding their facility in the UAE, and growing their team. “We are also excited about the launch of our own e-commerce platform! The crop will be harvested only once a customer places an order and will reach them within a couple of hours. We are also raising our next round of funding. So a lot is going on”, Omar concludes.
Omar Al Jundi will be one of the speakers during the upcoming Agritecture Xchange. When registering, you can use the code ‘HDaily10’ to get 10% off tickets.
Historically, coal-fired power plants were the largest source of reactive sulfur, a component of acid rain, to the biosphere. A new study recently publishing Aug. 10 in the journal Nature Geoscience shows that fertilizer and pesticide applications to croplands are now the most important source of sulfur to the environment.
Acid rain gained attention in the 1960s and 1970s when scientists linked degradation of forest and aquatic ecosystems across the northeastern US and Europe to fossil fuel emissions from industrial centers often hundreds of kilometers away. This research prompted the Clean Air Act and its Amendments, which regulated air pollution, driving sulfur levels in atmospheric deposition down to low levels today.
“It seemed like the sulfur story was over,” said Eve-Lyn Hinckley, assistant professor of environmental studies at University of Colorado, Boulder, and lead author of the study. “But our analysis shows that sulfur applications to croplands in the US and elsewhere are often ten times higher than the peak sulfur load in acid rain. No one has looked comprehensively at the environmental and human health consequences of these additions.”
Sulfur is a naturally occurring element that exists primarily in stable, geologic forms and is an important plant nutrient. Through mining activities, including fossil fuel extraction as well as synthesis of fertilizers and pesticides, sulfur is brought into air, land, and water systems. It can react quickly, and, as decades of research on acid rain showed, affect ecosystem health and the cycling of toxic metals that pose a danger to wildlife and people.
“Although sulfur is applied to agricultural lands to improve the production and health of crops, it can have detrimental effects to agricultural soils and downstream waters, similar to what occurred in remote forest landscapes under acid rain,” indicates Charles Driscoll, a professor at Syracuse University and co-author of the study.
The researchers examined trends in sulfur applications across multiple important crops in the US, including corn in the Midwest, sugarcane in Florida, and wine grapes in California. Their models of surface water sulfate export demonstrate that while areas like New England show declining trends in response to recovery from historic atmospheric deposition, sulfate export from agricultural areas is increasing.
Driscoll says an example of the impacts of agricultural applications of sulfur is the enhanced formation of methylmercury in waters draining agricultural lands, such as the Everglades Agricultural Area in Florida. Methylmercury is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in food chains leading to high concentrations in fish and increasing exposure of mercury to humans and wildlife that consume these fish.
The researchers predict that increasing trends will continue in many croplands around the world, including places like China and India that are still working to regulate fossil fuel emissions.
To date, much research has focused on understanding and regulating nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, which can cause eutrophication, fish kills, and harmful algal blooms downstream of agricultural areas.
Hinckley and Driscoll believe it is time for the research community to apply lessons learned while investigating the effects of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers to studying the implications of high sulfur use in agriculture. This research must seek not only to document its environmental and human health effects, but also to collaborate with farmers to investigate how to optimize sulfur use.
“Sulfur in agriculture is not going away,” said Hinckley, “Yet there is an opportunity to bring science and practice together to create viable solutions that protect long-term environmental, economic, and human health goals.”
Reference: “A shift in sulfur-cycle manipulation from atmospheric emissions to agricultural additions” by Eve-Lyn S. Hinckley, John T. Crawford, Habibollah Fakhraei and Charles T. Driscoll, 10 August 2020, Nature Geoscience. DOI: 10.1038/s41561-020-0620-3
Researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, and Syracuse University participated in this study.
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