In Dubai, Professor Haissam Jijakli's masterclass From Sand to Plate offers optimistic prospects for a healthy and eco-responsible diet.
As 2050 approaches, the question of feeding the world population is more important than ever. There are many different issues involved and they are sometimes antagonistic. How do we feed a constantly growing world population, with that of Africa set to double by 2050? How do we satisfy the needs of city dwellers knowing that urbanisation is progressing at a dizzying pace, with the current rate of 55% rising to 70-75% in 2050? How can we succeed in being self-sufficient or almost self-sufficient in food, while the pandemic shows the limits of trade in times of crisis? But above all, how can we meet these challenges when the availability of this food mass depends on the consequences of global warming and the loss of biodiversity (IPBES Report) , which is partly the cause of it?
Viable solutions for all? Healthy agriculture, delicious food, a sustainable environment
It is difficult to imagine a peaceful future for food if we combine the effects of climate change with the depletion of biodiversity and land resources. However, like Professor Haissam Jijakli, many researchers are showing creativity and optimism in developing alternative and beneficial solutions for the agriculture, culture, food, health and society of tomorrow.
For nearly 30 years, this plant pathologist researcher and agricultural engineer has been developing a line of research at the University of Liège (Gembloux Agro Bio Tech) dedicated to the biological control of plant pathogens, to reduce the use of conventional chemical pesticides. In the course of his work, he discovered urban agriculture projects that aroused his curiosity. In 2012, the potential development of underlying social links and virtuous ecology/economy relationships prompted him to focus on a new line of research into urban agriculture, by founding the C-RAU, Centre de Recherches en Agriculture Urbaine (Urban Agriculture Research Centre) within the University of Liège.
In all his research activities, his concern is to create a strong link between the academic and industrial worlds in order to implement new urban techniques that are economically, ecologically and socially affordable for the agricultural sector.
After the C-RAU, he founded Green Surf, a consulting firm that assists property developers and cities to include urban agriculture in their projects. In 2020, as coordinator, he launched the WAllonne de Système innovants en Agriculture et Biodiversité urbaine, WASABI, whose ambition is to bring about new modes of production, respecting or even restoring biodiversity, integrating the circular economy and developing on the outskirts or in the heart of cities.
The WASABI platform on the Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech campus
On five hectares of the Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech campus, bio-engineering students and landscape architects are conducting life-size experiments with all the innovative systems and techniques in the field of sustainable urban cultivation, according to four themes: urban agriculture, biodiversity infrastructure, botanic garden and rain garden.
They are attempting to respond to our contemporary concerns, reduce food waste, reduce travel by producing where we consume, and adapt production to our environment and to climate change.
Roof greenhouses (c) GROOF
We can therefore follow the evolution of greenhouses on roofs to reduce CO2 emissions and transform the heat loss of buildings into benefits.
Aquaponics provides a lesson on the circular economy, as water enriched by fish excrement feeds the plants. The water purified by the plants feeds the fish pond. Water consumption is low and no fertilisers, pesticides or antibiotics are required. The icing on the cake is that it allows vegetables and fish to be produced on the same site.
Aquaponics (c) WASABI
There are many different projects, from market gardening plots, plant factories in containers, to green roofs and walls, gardens with multiple species, and sedimentation and filtration basins.
Rain garden (c) WASABI
These ambitious yet realistic projects are supported by Walloon and international expertise. If there is one message to be retained from these many experiments, far from greenwashing, it is that of collaboration between researchers, the sharing of expertise, the synergy between research and its environment and the exploitation of the results.
From sand to plate
This is how Professor Jijakli, with over 80 national and international research projects to his credit, is approaching his masterclass From Sand to Plate in Dubai. He presents the primary production of fruits and vegetables using innovative production systems based on above-ground techniques, such as aquaponics and rooftop farming as mentioned above.
This is an opportunity to discover the Smart Aquaponics application, which provides an introduction to the best aquaponics practices in a fun way. Aquaponics, inspired by an age-old cultivation technique, is accessible to all - individuals, companies, schools and HoReCa. It is a complete and sustainable project made inclusive and scalable by the app. As the user community grows, the app will becomes more accurate.
Smart Aquaponics Application (c) WASABI
Arom@home, also presented in Dubai in collaboration with the gastronomy activities, is another example of the concrete application of the research conducted at Gembloux. This hydroponic microgreens rack for restaurant owners allows the autonomous production of fresh organic herbs and microgreens all year round, in accordance with needs and without waste.
Professor Jijakli's mission at the C-RAU is to assess the relevance of the various economic models of urban agriculture, with the aim of developing crops with higher added value.
The development of urban agriculture does not meet the same needs everywhere in the world. For us, it involves ecological, social and economic values, while for others, it is a matter of food safety and the survival of the populations. Dubai, like the other six members of the United Arab Emirates Federation, imports 90% of its food needs. With limited water and land resources and an exponential population increase, a food safety policy has been needed for some years, and has now been accentuated by the pandemic. The UAE have built up stocks after buying and leasing land abroad. They now want to achieve food self-sufficiency by producing locally on a continuous basis. With energy available in quantity and at low cost, and with substantial financial resources, the UAE are developing very high-tech agriculture with vertical farms in the desert that are entirely robotised, cutting-edge fish farming, and dairy production.
Urban agriculture takes many forms, due to differences in resources, differences in destinations and differences in techniques.
Haïssam Jijakli and Simon Dal Maso conducted research on bioherbicides at the Laboratory of Integrated and Urban Phytopathology, at Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech ULiège. Both continue the adventure by co-founding the start-up APEO.
This masterclass led by one of the great specialists in the field, will certainly produce new questions, but also new perspectives for sustainable and viable innovations such as the essential oil-based natural bioherbicides replacing glyphosate, discovered by Professor Jijakli's laboratory and currently being developed and marketed by the new spin-off APEO (for "Agronomical Plant Extracts & Essential Oils").
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