On-Campus Urban Farm to Promote Sustainable Agriculture

September 21, 2018

Sourcing food locally through urban farming is gaining traction as a way to provide city-dwellers with access to fresh produce while bolstering local efforts to achieve food security.

For the UAE, where the majority of the population lives in urban centers, and the country overall grapples with the challenge of food security, urban farms could serve as a valuable test-bed for the development of innovative and sustainable farming practices and technologies.

It is for that reason that Masdar Institute’s Dr. Lina Yousef, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, formed the Masdar Institute Urban Farming Club, which she hopes will support the development of student-led research into technologies and processes for the improvement of Abu Dhabi’s soils and provide students with a meaningful campus experience.

“New technologies are critically needed to improve the UAE’s level of local crop production and urban farming is one strategy that we can capitalize on to help meet this goal in a sustainable way,” Dr. Yousef said. The associate professor leads several of the Institute’s sustainable agriculture-focused research projects.

Masdar City has provided the club with a gardening plot adjacent to the Institute’s Multi-Use Hall parking lot, which measures approximately 8 square-meters. This plot of land was previously used as a growing bed for a type of ornamental plant and is already equipped with irrigation pipes.

“Plots used for gardening can be 15 times more productive than gardens landscaped with plants grown for decorative purposes. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reports that a one square-meter area can provide up to 20 kg of food per year,” she added.

The club will leverage the irrigation systems already in place in Masdar City to produce a sustainable edible garden by planting seasonal vegetables and fruits, with a focus on native varieties that are most suited for the UAE’s hot climate.

“The Urban Farming Club will grow herbs and vegetables for the Masdar Institute community on a dedicated patch of green space on campus. The club will help spread awareness about the importance of local and sustainable crop production and adequate land use practices, while offering students a truly enjoyable activity,” said the club’s president, Saeed AlKhoori, a Master’s student in the Water and Environmental Engineering Program.

“To increase the sustainability of our urban farm, we will grow plants that can produce their own nutrients to reduce the amount of fertilizers needed and eliminate the use of pesticides,” said Zainab Almheiri, a Master’s student in the Engineering Systems and Management Program and the club’s financial officer.

Dr. Yousef has plans to expand the club’s activities and is seeking collaborative opportunities to partner with seed providers and other interested organizations. The long-term goal is to use the urban club as a platform, or pilot scale demonstration, to attract funding that will support the expansion of urban farming at a national level.

“Planting, or ‘horticulture therapy,’ is a holistic approach that students can use to enhance their level of physical activity while also developing a healthy mind and spirit. That being said, the urban farming club will serve as a focal point for students to become inspired, develop ownership and a culture of belonging at Masdar Institute,” she explained.

The farm will also contribute to Masdar Institute’s “living laboratory” environment, enabling faculty and students to test the performance of the innovative technologies they develop on their own campus farm.

With a recent surge in rooftop farms, vertical farms (which grow crops without natural sunlight or soil), local greenhouses, and farmer’s markets, the UAE is embracing urban farming as an innovative solution for increasing local crop production and achieving greater food security.

Last year the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority’s (Dewa) building in Al Quoz announced the successful growth of vegetables on their rooftop garden. Their 2,500 square-meter garden has grown over 400 plants, including cabbage, tomatoes and cauliflowers.

Dr. Yousef believes that urban farming is not only a tool to help increase the country’s sustainable food production, but also one that will help students at Masdar Institute develop a healthy mind and spirit.

Erica Solomon
News and Features Writer
24 March 2016