Detail of the vertical farm exhibit at the Finland Pavilion
Blaine Brownell Detail of the vertical farm exhibit at the Finland Pavilion

Agriculture is one of the most conspicuous priorities represented at the Expo 2020 Dubai. The emphasis on sustainable farming is unsurprising, particularly at a world’s fair. However, the uncertain future of food in the extreme climate of the United Arab Emirates (and the Middle East in general) is driving a sincere and urgent push for innovation in agriculture.

The UAE currently relies on 90% of its food to be imported, primarily due to its desert climate. This heavy reliance on outside sources became a cause of significant concern during the coronavirus pandemic, as supply chains were disrupted and food prices increased dramatically. As a result, the government is investing heavily in local agriculture and livestock—developing methods such as growing rice and cultivating dairy cows in arid conditions. In this way, the UAE hopes to increase domestic food production by 30 to 40% in the next decade. As a result, food is a common theme throughout the Dubai Expo, where notable advances in agricultural science are on display in both locally sponsored exhibits and other countries’ pavilions.

Vertical farm exhibit at the Netherlands Pavilion
Blaine Brownell Vertical farm exhibit at the Netherlands Pavilion

The UAE’s agricultural ambitions are represented in several research-oriented installations. One exhibition entitled “Farming Reimagined for the Desert” features work by Smart Acres, a vertical farming company that develops indoor hydroponic facilities. The firm claims to grow “pesticide-free leafy greens using one-tenth of the land and 90% less water than traditional farming” and is currently increasing its production from 11 to 155 tons per year. Vertical farming is also highlighted in other national pavilions, including those of Finland and the Netherlands—countries with much more conducive climates for traditional agriculture but which nonetheless see advantages in the practice. These endeavors highlight a new global focus on “agritecture”—the development of vertical farming and urban agriculture.

The Desert Farm exhibit detail
Blaine Brownell The Desert Farm exhibit detail

Another exhibition is The Desert Farm, an open-air project labeled “the solar-powered farm of the future.” The farm features heat-and saltwater-tolerant crops such as quinoa and salicornia (sea beans), fertilized by farm-raised tilapia. Although desert farming has existed for millennia, finding plants that deliver optimal nutrition for a burgeoning population remains challenging. Dubai’s International Center of Biosaline Agriculture has collected more than 13,000 seeds from around the world, including over 1,200 varieties of quinoa, to determine the few plants capable of growing in the UAE’s extreme climate and providing sufficient nutrients.

Microalgae pools at the Italy Pavilion
Blaine Brownell Microalgae pools at the Italy Pavilion

The UAE pavilion exhibit entitled “Holistic Production of Food and Fuel” features the work of the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium at the Khalifa University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi. Founded in 2011 to develop alternative fuel sources for aviation, the SBRC oversees an innovative circular resource project called the Seawater Entry and Agriculture System. Like the Desert Farm, the project involves the interconnected cultivation of fish, shrimp, mangroves, and salicornia. The fish farm wastewater fertilizes the plants, and they, in turn, clean the water and absorb CO2. According to SBRC director Alejandro Rios Galvan, “Here, nothing goes to waste.”

Opportunity Pavilion
Blaine Brownell Opportunity Pavilion
Orange peel flooring at the Italy Pavilion
Blaine Brownell Orange peel flooring at the Italy Pavilion

The Italy Pavilion joins the food-fuel investigation with the active cultivation of microalgae in expansive pools. Three different species of algae—spirulina, dunaliella, and haematococcus—absorb CO2 from the exhalations of visitors, exchanging it with fresh oxygen emitted outside the building. The multicolored reservoirs foam with continuous agitation, developing biomass that can be processed as food nutrients and fertilizers. Carlo Ratti and Italo Rota, co-designers of the Italy Pavilion, also considered food waste as a building material for the pavilion. For example, the primary walking path that directs visitors through the space is surfaced with repurposed orange peels, and footbridges are coated with ground coffee beans. According to the architects, the intent was for building materials to be recycled or turned into compost after the structure’s useful life.

Smart Acres exhibit at the UAE Pavilion
Blaine Brownell Smart Acres exhibit at the UAE Pavilion

The Opportunity Pavilion features a “Mission Possible” visitor experience focused on attaining the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The exhibition showcases the work of engineer Maryam Al-Junaibi, of the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment, who has championed sustainable agriculture using available resources. The efforts of engineers Mansour Al-Mansoori, a specialist in date palm cultivation; Fadel Nasser Al-Saadi, an expert in local honey production; and German Aline, a scholar of desert-friendly plants, are also highlighted. The Mission Possible platform encapsulates the positive and resourceful agricultural message delivered throughout the Expo: even in the most extreme and unlikely circumstances, scientific advances can lead to progress toward sustainable food production. Many challenges undoubtedly remain, and 90% of food imports will not be replaced with locally grown products overnight. However, Dubai’s lofty agricultural dreams and palpable technical advances deliver hope at a time when many countries—with far more hospitable climates than the UAE—are anxious about the adverse effects of climate change on farming.

This is Blaine Brownell's second dispatch from the Expo 2020 Dubai. The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.