A Manufactured Garden of Eden?

A Manufactured Garden of Eden?
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2021

The steady increase in global temperatures has given rise to a formidable concern; desertification is anticipated to affect 35% of the world’s population in the near future.1 It is an unfolding crisis described as “the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas,” accredited to the increase of global population, demand for food, and climate change.2 An estimated 15% of global land area is already degraded, while 46% is moderately affected.3 In 2018, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi reported the abandonment of eight thousand farms due to soil salinity and degradation, where the Emirate’s land is gradually becoming irreversibly deteriorated.4 Thus, adaptation strategies in an attempt to counterbalance desertification are now becoming major global concerns. A Norwegian technology company by the name Desert Control claimed an adaptation strategy able to enrich desert sand to fertility levels worthy of high-quality farming. As a result, the company received a 100-million-dirham grant on the basis of increasing the efficiency of domestic agricultural production through their proprietary innovation of Liquid Nano Clay (LNC).5 This paper assesses the viability of LNC in delivering food security in the UAE. If successful, LNC possesses not only the potential to enhance domestic food production, but a chance at offsetting the intensity of desertification in the region. In an area with increased water salinity and scarce freshwater resources, nanotechnology may become a conditional factor in realizing the region’s green visions.  

It is important to understand the present and future risks of current global trends to explore the nuances of this technology. In 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organization published alarming statistics stating that 10.8% of the world’s population suffered from malnutrition, which accounted for 794 million people.6 The following year, the number increased by 21 million, an increase despite various United Nations initiatives aiming at decreasing world hunger. Furthermore, the World Bank and UN organizations forecast a steady population growth, whereby the world population is estimated to be between 8 to 10 billion by 2050.7 Recent statistics indicate that food security, especially on a global scale, is nowhere close to a work in progress. Unfortunately, 2020 did not provide a viable solution as the world experiences yet another unprecedented challenge, the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19). The Covid-19 pandemic is expected to double the number of individuals suffering from acute hunger, with a quarter billion people potentially at the brink of starvation.8 Changes are necessary for the global food and agriculture system, whereby sustainable production will help alleviate and potentially eradicate the threat of hunger. As a result, adaptation strategies in the field of agricultural production are becoming major areas of scientific concern as scholars search for alternatives and methods viable to supply sufficient food, all while sustaining an increase in population and an already stressed environment.

Furthermore, climate change has already significantly affected water resources and food security, making climate variability one of the most substantial factors influencing annual crop production.9 As a result of climate variability, damages such as erosion, land degradation, and soil contamination are projected to increase, inevitably leading to the loss of agricultural land. Agrarian crises are projected to intensify further, impacting many food supplying regions including Russia, South and Southeast Asia, and countries in the African continent.10 Unfortunately, not all countries possess the privilege of economic strength and efficient stewardship. These determinants are unevenly spread among the world’s major food producers, increasing the risk of disrupting supply chains. Nonetheless, the UAE is one of the major Gulf countries attempting to counterbalance and limit the extent of these risks. Government investments towards securing food supply and acquisition have dramatically increased over the past few decades, aiming to address local land challenges of climate change mitigation. Recently, LNC has gained recognition as a new technology in combatting land degradation and desertification.   

Nanotechnology revolves around the creation of varied nanomaterials—particles tiny enough that they alter the composition of different materials.11 Despite significant interest, it was not until 2008 that nanotechnology was utilized in the agricultural context, where it underwent numerous laboratory and field trials. Soon after, Desert Control claimed an adaptation strategy that produced LNC. The technology possesses the ability to efficaciously reduce the amount of water needed to irrigate grass and crops, despite the existing natural constraints. In the case of LNC, the nanoparticles are used to alter or enhance soil particles according to demand.12 Its defining feature is its compaction characteristics, where it binds sand particles together allowing for moisture to be sustained. Furthermore, if the sand particles are very moist and have high water content, LNC enhances its compressive strength, allowing for huge structures and civil engineering projects to be constructed on soft soil.  Its compressive strength and binding characteristics allow the sand to retain and maintain density or water content that would otherwise be lost under normal circumstances, and thus contributes to the stability of the soil.13 The technology’s potential to deliver food security has attracted Dubai Expo 2020 to invest 100 million dirhams into further research to be carried out in the UAE.14

In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which covers around 85% of the UAE’s total landmass, citizens are able to acquire farmland free of charge. In return, the Ministry of Environment & Water monitors the farmlands and is responsible for up to 50 percent of farming supplements i.e. fertilizers, pesticides, and the supply of seeds.15 However, scarcity of water and arable land pose natural constraints on expansive agriculture, where large-scale crops are limited to wheat, vegetables, potatoes, and dates, as opposed to crops like tea and coffee. Before LNC, the method used to fill the gaps in sand particles required large amounts of normal clay, often making the process very costly and inefficient.16 LNC, on the other hand, operates by producing an optimal mixture of sand and clay that maintains the fresh nature of soil. The company’s innovation is a novel technique of mixing clay with water in order to ensure that clay particles are perfectly and evenly distributed at the surface. The sand then turns into a sponge-like fabric that retains moisture, water, and nutrients; an ideal solution for the dry sands of the desert. Previously, a common problem witnessed when attempting to enhance the absorption of soil was sacrificing the ability for the soil to ventilate, as particles would be closed off. However, Nanoparticles can adequately retain moisture, while allowing for good ventilation. In order to maximize the efficiency of the LNC technology, the mixture must follow precise amounts of sand, NanoClay, and water, which varies across different types of soil.

The first tests were carried out on a local farm located in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi. To examine the efficiency of LNC, half of the farm, with a total area of 400m2, was treated with LNC.17 Subsequently, quantities of okra, cauliflower, carrots, and sweet peppers were cultivated on both sides, set for a cultivation period of 3 months. Upon harvest, the weights of individual crops harvested from the LNC treated region were heavier than the control, where the average weight of the pieces of cauliflower, okra, carrots, and sweet peppers were higher by 109, 18, 17, and 64 percent respectively. Furthermore, the network created by LNC retained nutrients and water more effectively amounting to an increase in crop yield by 40 percent and water reduction up to 65 percent. This translated to the reduction of irrigation requirements by up to 77.5 percent.18 Despite reduced water consumption, LNC has shown to maximize agricultural production efficiency and introduce a huge cost reduction to farmers. 

However, nothing ensures the longevity of agricultural tech projects, for implementation appears to be more difficult than headlines claim. LNC and other similar technologies are a great potential for crops to thrive on; however, the harshness of the desert is another issue that forces the country’s reliance on food import. The arid-hot environment limits the variety of harvestable crops, hence demonstrating the correlation between vegetation and weather. Furthermore, food security in an environment of sparse and fragile vegetation is one of the country’s greatest challenges; especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, the region has experienced a long history of afforestation and development schemes that have failed or disappeared, either due to the difficulty of implementation, the lack of investment, or the prioritization of spectacles over yielding tangible results. As a result, the 1960s and 70s experienced increased techno-fetishism concerning the Green Revolution.19 In 1969, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi announced a large-scale greenhouse project on the island of Saadiyat that would be realized with the help of the University of Arizona’s Environmental Research Labs. This was one of the first attempts of inviting ultra-modern greenhouse initiatives to the Arabian Peninsula. Similar to other agricultural tech projects of the day, this initiative also capitalized on the idea of a new promising future in a world of diminishing water and food resources. The initiative read, “We can’t eat oil,” establishing the reality of the region’s dependence on oil. Half a century later, Saadiyat Island is the home of New York University Abu Dhabi and the Louvre museum, with no large-scale greenhouse project in sight. The Arizona project was ultimately shut down and dismantled in the mid- 1970’s.20 

Thus, agricultural tech initiatives are extremely difficult to implement, and we should be wary of what Natalie Koch identifies as neo-colonial “technopolitics of spectacle” associated with for-profit agrotechnology corporations in the Gulf. The specificity of context is paramount when addressing the success of any given agricultural innovation. When asked, Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, the previous Minister of Climate Change and Environment, stated that agricultural innovations, of the likes of LNC, are very difficult to determine as guaranteed successes.21 He continued to say that it has worked in places and failed in others, hinting at the requirement for more tests in order to conclude a revolutionary addition to the UAE’s agricultural production system. Moreover, the pandemic has caused the project to halt, which is why he chose to abstain from claiming any successes until field tests are complete.

Food security in the UAE has always been an issue of growing concern. Today, the UAE is investing heavily in many agricultural technologies similar to LNC. Yet, determining the extent to which nanotechnology and other agricultural initiatives contribute to the UAE’s goal of enhancing domestic food production is rather difficult. Nevertheless, the will of investing in agrotechnology is of great importance, as striving towards food security is the adequate response in the wake of potentially alarming crises.


Nasser Anwahi is a 4th-year student at New York University Abu Dhabi majoring in Political Science, and minoring in Legal Studies and Social Research and Public Policy. He is particularly interested in food and water security, and propagating more regenerative food and water systems, specifically in MENA. Find him on LinkedIn here.


Endnotes

1.  Robert McSweeney, “Explainer: ‘Desertification’ and the role of climate change,” https://www.carbonbrief.org/explainer-desertification-and-the-role-of-climate-change.
2.  United Nations, “World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, 17 June,” https://www.un.org/en/observances/desertification-day.
3.  Jens F. Sundström et al., “Future Threats to Agricultural Food Production Posed by Environmental Degradation, Climate Change, and Animal and Plant Diseases – a Risk Analysis in Three Economic and Climate Settings,” Food Security 6, no. 2 (2014): pp. 201-215.
4.  Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, “Abu Dhabi State of Environment Report 2017,” https://www.soe.ae/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Soil_English.pdf.
5.  Expo 2020 Dubai, “Global Innovators | Expo 2020 Dubai,” Expo 2020 Dubai, 2019, https://www.expo2020dubai.com/en/programmes/expo-live/iigp/global-innovators.
6.  Alexander Y. Prosekov and Svetlana A. Ivanova, “Food Security: The Challenge of the Present,” Geoforum 91 (2018): pp. 73-77.
7.  Ibid
8.  United Nations, “Goal 2: Zero Hunger – United Nations Sustainable Development,” United Nations, accessed May 10, 2020, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/.
9.  Jens F. Sundström et al., “Future Threats to Agricultural Food Production Posed by Environmental Degradation, Climate Change, and Animal and Plant Diseases – a Risk Analysis in Three Economic and Climate Settings,” Food Security 6, no. 2 (2014): pp. 201-215.
10.  Saif Qaydi, “The Status and Prospects for Agriculture in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Their Potential to Contribute to Food Security,” Journal of Basic & Applied Sciences 12 (2016): pp. 155-163.
11.  Majeed, Zaid Hameed, and Mohd Raihan Taha, “Improvement of Soft Soil Using Nanomaterials,” Journal of Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (2014): pp. 503-509.
12.  Majeed, Zaid Hameed, and Mohd Raihan Taha, “Improvement of Soft Soil Using Nanomaterials,” Journal of Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (2014): pp. 503-509.
13.  Ibid
14.  Expo 2020 Dubai, “Global Innovators | Expo 2020 Dubai,” Expo 2020 Dubai, 2019, https://www.expo2020dubai.com/en/programmes/expo-live/iigp/global-innovators.
15.  Saif Qaydi, “The Status and Prospects for Agriculture in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Their Potential to Contribute to Food Security,” Journal of Basic & Applied Sciences 12 (2016): pp. 155-163.
16.  Desert Control. n.d. Irrigation in the Middle East Region in Figures. Policy Paper, Desert Control Whitepaper.
17.  Ibid
18.  Ibid
19. Koch, Natalie. “AgTech in Arabia: Spectacular Forgetting and the Technopolitics of Greening the Desert.” Journal of Political Ecology 26, no. 1, (2019): pp.  666–86. https://doi.org/10.2458/v26i1.23507.
20.  Ibid
21.  Al Zeyoudi, Thani. Renewable Energy Law and Policy. New York University Abu Dhabi. 22 May 2020.


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