Algae pasta, saltwater crops share million-dollar UAE prize

ABU DHABI (AFP) – Illuminated fishing nets, algae pasta and crops that grow in saltwater are among projects sharing a million-dollar prize for food security solutions in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

A water-scarce nation with a desert climate and very little arable land, the oil-rich UAE imports 90 per cent of its food.

But it is intent on reducing this external reliance, an issue brought to the fore by the novel coronavirus pandemic which disrupted global supply chains.

“The UAE is very vulnerable to global supply disruptions, and we want to make sure we’re food secure, not just now but also in the future,” said Minister of State for Food and Water Security Mariam Almheiri.

“It is very difficult to grow food here, and this is why we want to boost… the local production, looking at what we can grow here in the UAE with technology,” she told a virtual panel on Wednesday as the winners of the FoodTech Challenge were announced.

United Kingdom (UK)-based SafetyNet Technologies, Red Sea Farms from Saudi Arabia, Australia-based Has Algae and QS Monitor from the UAE were each awarded USD100,000 after being selected from some 437 submissions from 68 countries.

They will also be eligible to enrol in an accelerator programme that will offer USD150,000 in seed funding “to help rapidly implement and scale their solutions in the UAE”, organisers said.

SafetyNet Technologies was recognised for its development of an LED-equipped netting system that helps fishermen catch specific species and reduce the discarded bycatch, while Red Sea Farms won for technology allowing saltwater to be used in crop production.

Has Algae uses the organisms to create everyday food such as pasta, yoghurt and bread, and QS Monitor has created a monitoring platform to ensure food meets safety standards.

The UAE is home to some 10 million people, the vast majority of them foreign residents.

The Gulf country is rich in energy resources and ingenuity, but endures long, dry, baking summers.

More than a decade ago, the UAE began buying or leasing agricultural land abroad, mainly in east Africa, to lock in supply even in times of crisis.

It then looked towards Australia and Eastern Europe for guaranteed supplies, but the need to overcome import dependence has inspired other strategies, including stockpiling and high-tech agriculture.

Pioneering projects set up in recent years have seen fish farmed in tanks in the desert, multi-storey “vertical farms” and pilot projects to produce rice with minimal irrigation.