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Farming in the Desert: Are Vertical Farms the Solution to Saving Water?
By Isabelle Gerretsen
"When I told people I was going to grow tomatoes in the desert, they thought I was crazy," Sky Kurtz, founder of Pure Harvest Smart Farms, told DW.
With just an average 12 days of rain a year, less than 1% arable land, a desert location and an 80% import rate for food, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seems an unfavorable place to set up a farm.
Kurtz is one of several entrepreneurs using high-tech farming techniques to boost crop production in the Emirates. Pure Harvest built the first climate-controlled greenhouse in Abu Dhabi in 2017.
Prompted by arid conditions and a desire for greater food security, the country is investing millions in technologies — such as vertical farming — that could make it an unlikely agricultural pioneer.
Vertical farms can grow a rich variety of different crops by stacking them in layers under LED lighting in climate-controlled greenhouses and watering them with mist or drip systems. The process is tailored to each crop's specific needs, resulting in high-yield, year-round harvests.
"It takes 30 to 40 days to grow leafy greens out in the field. We can grow that same crop in 10 to 12 days," says Marc Oshima, co-founder of Aerofarms. The company received funding from the Abu Dhabi Investment Office to build the capital's largest indoor vertical farm, with 800 different crops, by 2021.
Water Scarcity and Fossil-Fuel Reliance
The technology uses minimal land and up to 95% less water than conventional agriculture.
The hydroponics system places the plants' roots directly into a water-based and nutrient-rich solution instead of soil. This "closed loop" system captures and recirculates all the water, rather than allowing it to drain away — useful for a country like the UAE suffering from extremely high water stress.
Globally, agriculture accounts for 70% of freshwater withdrawals, and UAE is extracting groundwater faster than it can be replenished, according to the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA).
"Water is very expensive over in the UAE, but energy is cheap as it is subsidized," says Jan Westra, a strategic business developer at Priva, a company providing technology to vertical farms.
The artificially controlled environment is energy intensive because the air conditioning and LED lights need a constant source of electricity.
This bringing forth of life in the desert could come at a high environmental cost. Most of that energy comes from carbon-emitting fossil fuels, even as the Middle Eastern country feel the effects of climate change.
By 2050 Abu Dhabi's average temperature is predicted to increase by around 2.5°C (36.5 F) in a business-as-usual scenario. Over the next 70 years patterns of rainfall are also expected to change.
Integrating Renewable Energy
Although Pure Harvest is building a solar-powered farm in neighboring Saudi Arabia, its UAE operations get electricity from the carbon-intensive national grid.
Investing more in renewables "is a goal of ours," Kurtz told DW. He said the company has not set a clean energy target but is working on various green power projects, including a plan to integrate solar power generated in UAE into its operations.
However, Willem van der Schans, a researcher specializing in short supply chains at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, says sustainability and clean energy should be "inherent in the technology and included in plans when starting a vertical farm."
He argues that many vertical farming companies are not sustainable in terms of energy as they still view clean power as an optional "add-on."
Ismahane Elouafi, director general of the government funded ICBA in Abu Dhabi, acknowledges that vertical farming has some way to go before achieving "real sustainability," but she believes the innovations are "promising."
Improved battery storage, increasingly efficient LED lights and cheaper solar panels will help, she adds.
By 2050, the UAE government wants to generate almost half its energy from renewable sources.
Fred Ruijgt, a vertical farming specialist at Priva, argues that it's important to factor transport and refrigeration into the energy equation. Vertical farming uses more energy to grow crops than traditional agriculture, but because crops are grown locally, they do not have to be transported by air, sea or truck over long distances.
"The energy saving is difficult to calculate exactly, but the advantages of locally grown crops are huge," he says, adding that those grown in vertical farms not only use less water and pesticides, but that they also have a longer shelf life due to minimal transportation time.
Food Security and Coronavirus
In 2018, the UAE set out its vision to become a hub for high-tech local food production.
Companies and investors have flocked to the region, attracted by the 0% corporate tax rate, low labor costs and cheap energy. With their help, UAE aims to reduce its reliance on imports and make its food system more resilient to shocks like climate change and pandemics.
Oshima from Aerofarms says the coronavirus pandemic has brought "greater appreciation of how fragile the supply chain is and raised questions about food safety and security."
When the UAE went into lockdown in April, imported supplies of perishable goods like vegetables fell and business boomed for local suppliers.
ICBA's Elouafi said they have helped keep the UAE well-stocked during the pandemic.
"With the help of local food production and adequate imports, there has been absolutely no shortage of food in the UAE," Elouafi told DW.
Climate change, however, poses an altogether more complex threat to the country in the long-term. Given climate change's likely impact on food production, she says vertical farming has shown it is "an economically viable proposition even with harsh climatic conditions."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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