Thinking Outside the Box

Food Security

The Hope mission to Mars, set to be launched in 2020, is the first step of a broader, ambitious plan to build a city on the red planet by 2117.

Finding commonalities between a food security program and a space mission to Mars may seem a rather ambitious intellectual effort at first. One aspect incorporates immediate, day-to-day actions motivated by a sense of urgency that cries for survival. The other is a product of a long-term strategic planning to put back, after almost 1,000 years, the Arab world on the map of scientific research and progress. However, using an out-of-the-box approach to address food security—and in this case, the box is planet Earth, the UAE has taken this expression quite literally.

The relationship between the Abu Dhabi Food Security Center and the UAE Space Agency is utilitarian in nature: the activity of one is justified by the fulfillment of the other.

The arid, desert-like environment in the UAE and surrounding GCC countries represents one of the most pressing challenges for a country that imports 90% of its food and is heavily characterized by water scarcity. These issues are compounded as the process of agricultural expansion to overcome the gap in food security in turn aggravates the severity of water shortages.
And with the urban population predicted to grow up to 9.9 million by 2020, a sustainable, long-term solution is desperately needed. “We are in an arid region, facing challenges that any country in this environment would face,” said Mariam Al Mehairi, the Minister of State for Future Food Security. “We need to put our heads together and come up with tangible, sustainable solutions for the food production sector.”

This is where the UAE Space Mission to Mars comes into play. Set to launch from Earth in a brief window of time in July 2020, a rocket containing a spacecraft named “Hope” is expected to arrive on Mars in 2021 after a seven-month journey. The journey therefore holds a specific scientific purpose to understand how to support life in such a harsh environment. UAE Space Agency Director General, Dr. Mohammed Naser Al Ahbabi, noted, “Our environment is not that different from Mars. We face the same challenges. For example, Mars today is a desert, with no atmosphere; however, we can see and tell from the structure of the planet that there was once water there.”

As soon as Hope is launched, the UAE will build a Mars scientific city in Dubai, a laboratory that seeks to recreate the living conditions of the red planet. The ultimate aim of the international science community is to understand why water disappeared to prevent the same from happening on Earth. The idea is then to employ the best scientists to use their new understanding to create solutions that will be applied on Earth, delving into the underlying factors that led to the disappearance of water and providing the necessary tools to maximize the efficiency of water management where food security lies at the top of national priorities. At the moment, apart from desalination plants, the UAE has been looking abroad to address this issue. Most notably, it has invested in agricultural projects in Pakistan and Thailand for rice cultivation and in Sudan for feed cultivation. Considered by many an overly ambitious goal, there is reason to believe looking at Mars is just a natural step in the line of succession for a country that has always set its targets higher than anyone else.

Dr. Ahbabi also stressed the broader scope of such a mission. “We need to team up with the international space community to ask big questions not specific to countries, but to humanity,” he said. The Hope journey thus represents only the first step of the much wider, longer-term vision that is the Mars 2117 project. Announced in 2017 by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE, the Emirates have embarked on a 100-year plan to prepare national cadres to facilitate the transport of people and build the first city on Mars.