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Can CEA truly tackle the water crisis?

The UAE is a big contributor when it comes to desalinating its water used for agriculture. However, it seems that this valuable resource is becoming more and more scarce. So what can be done to further regulate the use of this precious resource in agriculture?

Water independence
Alexei Levene, Co-Founder and CCO of Desolenator, claims that the industry will continue desalinating, and unfortunately, the process is very carbon intensive and high in operating costs. On top of that, the process uses chemicals that end up in a brine that goes back into the sea or, for farmers, into the soil. This means that you may have a reversed osmosis system, tapping salty water in the ground, whereas the salinity levels increase every year.

There has always been a trade of water, energy, and food. The biggest fusion reactor is the sun, so let’s tap that renewable energy and the sources of water, either seawater or brackish. Then, let’s use the resources and do it in a low-carbon way, measuring carbon saving at the moment.

“We’re over a 1000% carbon saving versus reverse osmosis, which is rather exciting given there’s potential in the future that systems can be given away to monetize carbon credits. Yet, that market is a little nascent but will undoubtedly mature. In the future, potentially in places where they cannot afford such processes, we could pay for the desalination and monetize the carbon instead. I don’t want to have to think about trading things off. We want to give you water, tailor the mineralization of that water (ideally for a given crop), and in return, growers pay a monthly sum or set up an offtake agreement.

‘Yet, if water is cheap, why would they pay for it as it’s not the biggest cost of running a farm?’ panel leader Henry Gordon-Smith, Founder and CEO of Agritecture, asked the panelists while exploring the topic ‘Unlocking the full potential of CEA within the complex water-energy-food nexus.’ As a response, Alexei explained that they want to create water independence around the supply. For now, water is still affordable, but Alexei might see that change in the future; thus, they aim to finance growers who might struggle in that area.

Joining Henry, along with numerous attendees of the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in Dubai, were Alexei Levene, Co-Founder and CCO of Desolenator, Khadija Hasan, Founder and CEO of KRISPR, Feras Al Soufi, General Manager of Bustanica, Emirates Crop One, and Ryan Lefers, Co-Founder and CEO of RedSea.

Is year-round production really needed?
Keeping everyone awake and sharp, Henry challenged the panelists again by dropping the question, “If it’s so hard to grow food in the Middle East from July to October, why would you want to produce food here if it’s available via imports?”

As a response, Sky Kurtz, Founder and CEO of Pure Harvest, commented that food security has a vital role to play here. “It’s available, however, despite the perishability and low prices, it is very unstable and resource intense. When disruptions come, it’s very rocky and thus not secure at all.”

Connecting farming to energy also faces insecurity like the Dutch, Henry remarked, which made Sky introduce the aspect of having a portfolio.

“Increasing renewable energy resources reducing that effect, or at this point, independent water even. Yet, the catalyst for this sector globally is that the world has started to value water. Ultimately, the issue is that there is an embedded subsidy that we all pay with our and our children’s future, allowing the abuse of water in a cataclysmic way around the world. Until the water wars have been corrected, it’s too cheap to have such free water and ship it everywhere. It depresses the ability of an industry like this to take scale, and the stature should. The government needs to act collectively to address water now, indirectly addressing our security. We will run out of water sooner or later. This will result in a global increase in building greenhouses and CEA systems at the same time which will result in CapEx to triple. Meaning that another crisis will commence; thus, hopefully, it can be started sooner.”

What is needed here to evaluate water in a certain way?
According to Alexei, there are three things needed to evaluate the future. Value water, thus valuing the carbon that’s associated with the production and transportation of water and valuing the brine (cost that brine does to the oceans). Secondly, a bold vision is needed. Thinking of the future, which is going to come fast with a lot of changes happening, a bold vision can bring on innovators that can bring on people. Then, thirdly, scale. It’s not just about plants but also about creating in-country value, bringing the supply chain here, and manufacturing as well. Yet, that all corresponds with a vision.

What can the government do to resolve these issues?
Ryan Lefers, Co-Founder & CEO of RedSea, commented, “We want water to be regulated and valued appropriately. We want there to be a policy on emissions so that we’re all tracked. As of right now, if a business decides to move and act on emissions, there’s no first-mover advantage but a first-mover penalty. Until the playing field becomes equal, that’s a penalty. At the end of the day, whether we like it or not, we report to shareholders who have a return. Having a policy in place to make an equal playing field is necessary.”

Commenting on that, Khadija said,” Startups, buyers, and customers need a price point for them to break even, otherwise, you’re not profitable. If our consumer doesn’t care about all these things, we can’t perpetually keep funding a business. Our shareholders cannot keep doing that.”

For more information:
World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit
Tel.: +44 1273 789989
[email protected]