Simon Cook’s Nuffield Thoughts: Part 3
After the heat of India things only stepped up as we arrived in Dubai to spend 4 days exploring the United Arab Emirates. We arrived to clear blue sky’s and temperatures in the late 40’s. We dropped our bags at our hotel and headed straight out to a camel farm where they milk camels and also produce camel ice-cream and are in partnership with a chef to produce camel chocolate. The manager spent time explaining the difficulties of milking camels and their sensitivity. Camels are only able to reproduce every 3 years, so of the 5000 camels being looked after at the farm only 700 are able to be milked at any one time producing a total of around 4,000 litres daily. The farm is owned by one of the local Sheiks and no expense was spared in the development of the site with duplicate milking setups, one for the morning and one for the afternoon. The site seemed to be more setup to care for the Sheiks beloved camels, than being a serious commercial operation. The farm was our first introduction to the no expense spared wealth that is being invested in agriculture as the UAE looks to become more self sufficient and develop a degree of food security. Currently around 80% of all produce is imported. A number of our visits were to facilities that didn’t exist a few years ago as the desert is bulldozed flat and water pumped up from aquifers to literally turn desert into farmland.
The following morning saw us leave Dubai at 7am and head inland towards Al Ain where we had 3 visits booked for the day. The first visit was to Emirates National Poultry Farms who supply eggs and chicken to the local market under the Al Khazna brand. As with all Gulf based abattoirs the chickens are all killed in accordance with Halal practices.
The second visit was to Elite Agro Greenhouses. Cooling the massive glasshouses against the desert heat is achieved by water being dripped across large mesh screens with powerful fans at the opposite side of the glasshouse used to draw warm air through the mesh. As the air is drawn through the wet mesh the water evaporates and cools the air. We saw this basic design used in a number of different applications as it is effective and much cheaper than direct air conditioning. It does however have 2 drawbacks. The first is the volume of water that is needed to continually wet the mesh screens, and in a desert this water has to be drawn from under ground. The second drawback is that it starts to lose efficacy as the humidity in the air increases.
Our final stop for the day was the Al Dhara dairy farm. This is a large organic dairy farm milking 1200 cows and producing around 45,000 litres per day. The real surprise however was the huge glasshouses being constructed out the back of the farm. An area of desert had been bulldozed and the were in the process of constructing 10ha of glasshouse at a cost of around 30m euros. Once again this reinforced the staggering resources that were being invested in the area.
The following day we headed towards Abu Dhabi. In the middle of a desert perched on a hill we found our aquaculture facility. The facility had basically gone through proof of concept in terms of being able to farm high quality Hamour fish for the local market. Having proved the concept they were in the progress of developing the site to make it a commercially feasible operation. The manager was telling us he had visited the site a year ago and wandered around the sand dunes to assess its suitability. Having confirmed the site was suitable he was then asked to return late the following day to mark out where the buildings would go. Thinking it is a bit odd to mark out an area in rolling dunes, he was staggered to find the site had been completely flattened and was ready for construction. As soon as it was agreed the site was workable a dozen large bulldozers had been bought in and worked all night flattening the dessert, no need for resource consents or planning permission here.
In the afternoon we visited a Lulu hypermarket and had a walk through a local Mosque. The next day was Friday and all the local shops were shut for the morning with Friday and Saturday being the weekend and everyone returning to work on Sunday. After a quiet morning waiting for facilities to open we headed out to the local museum to learn a little about the history of the area. It was fascinating to see photos of Dubai in the 1950’s with basically no development and compare it to what is there now.
The following day we were to fly from Dubai North to Qatar, what should be a 1 hour flight starts with a 1 hour flight in the wrong direction down to Oman before flying 2 hours back North around Dubai to get to Qatar. The detour is a result of the tensions between the two countries meaning no direct flights and a need to go through the neutral territory of Oman.
Qatar and in particular the capital Doha seemed to be one great construction site with new roads and buildings going in everywhere. With the soccer world cup being held in Doha in four years, they are in the process of building 8 brand new covered stadiums. You do get the sense that the discovery of oil and gas has enabled a remarkable change from bare desert inhabited by a few nomadic people to vast glittering cities that have literally sprung from the desert in the last 50 years. The population of Qatar has gone from 80,000 to almost 3 million within the space of about 30 years. The majority of the population growth is foreign workers being bought in to fuel the construction and gas industry. This population growth now means Qataris are a minority in their own country. This mass increase in population also need to be fed and the result is Qatar now reliant on importing 80% of their food.
12 months ago a blockade was placed by the Gulf countries against Qatar who they accused of aiding and abetting terrorism. The blockade effectively cut Qatar off from supply of goods and services from its neighbours. One of the goods affected was milk with all of Qatars milk being imported. The blockade immediately cut off all supply to fresh milk leaving only treated milk to come in from countries other than Qatars gulf neighbours. This forced Qatar to confront the issue of food security head on and in a rapid way. We visited the Baladna farm site an hour out of Doha. 12 months ago this site was milking a few goats. When the blockades were introduced Baladna set the target of supplying all Qatar’s fresh milk market within 12 months, a target they achieved. To do this around 3,000 cows already in milk were airlifted into the country with a maximum of 23 hours between milking. A further 5,000 in calf heifers were then shipped in, taking the total number being milked up to 8,000. Eventually the site will milk over 14,000. When you walk around the site it is staggering to think 12 months ago most of this site was just desert.
The first issue of water availability is a major one across the gulf. In visits across both the UAE and Qatar, we continually found large developments that were totally reliant on pumping up bore water. The problem is that water is often very saline, and in most cases the water had a higher salt content than seawater. The solution was to filter the water in a reverse osmosis RO plant keeping the clear water and pumping the now more concentrated salt water back into the ground. This will in time only serve to concentrate salt levels in the aquifers. A number of sites were basically a proof of concept that would need to be vastly scaled up to provide sufficient production to achieve some level of food security for the Gulf States. Whilst the oil and gas continue to flow there is no shortage of funding to tackle the issues of water supply and food security, the challenge will remain as to just how much water you can extract from a desert and what the impact will be on the wider environment.
Whether it was poultry, dairy or horticulture, every facility we visited had a reasonable level of biosecurity with foot baths at every facility and most requiring overalls and foot protection as well. Foot and Mouth disease is present in small farms around the gulf so the heightened level of biosecurity is understandable. We all took the responsible steps of soaking our shoes in bleach, to prevent the risk of spreading disease, before leaving Qatar and entering France. There was however no control on entering Europe to check we had done this. I will be interested to see if farms here take measures to protect themselves.