Dubai stands ready to receive an extra 2 million pounds of fresh, leafy greens locally produced in a novel vertical farm.
Most spinach you're likely to find in Dubai's supermarkets is most likely imported from as far away as Europe or the United States. In fact, this state of affairs extends to pretty much all of the food here: Dubai imports roughly 90% of its food. This shouldn't be very surprising, considering the limited availability of arable land and water for irrigation in the area.
But a new building plans to change that. Looking conspicuously similar to a warehouse building rising near the city's airport, the Bustanica Emirates Crop One (ECO 1) farm is now the largest vertical farm in the world. Covering over 330,000 square feet (some 30,600 square meters) of land, ECO 1 aims to produce 2 million pounds (roughly 907.000 kg) of leafy greens per year using a fraction of the water that traditional farming would.
ECO 1 is the product of a collaboration between Crop One, a vertical farming company based near Boston, and Emirates Flight Catering, the company that supplies Emirates Airlines with food.
Feeding the desert
"Size does matter in the food production space," says Craig Ratajczyk, CEO of Crop One. "When you’re talking about something this large, the economics work out well. So it turns out to be a very profitable farm."
The facility automatically keeps tabs on and adjusts environmental factors such as light, humidity, or nutrient levels inside the growing areas to maximize plant growth. While this in itself isn't new for indoor farms, the size of the installation is. Indoor farming is more expensive than traditional farming as all the systems that run the facility need to be bought, installed, and maintained, but scaling up production helps to divide costs and keeps the price of the final products competitive, Crop One explains.
ECO 1 will yield such greens as lettuce, spinach, arugula, and mixed greens.
It will use only 5% as much water to produce these vegetables as would be needed to grow them in open fields. The companies behind ECO 1 add that no pesticides or herbicides will be required due to the controlled environment inside the farm. And, thanks to its close proximity to the airport, the produce will be taken from the farm to the airline immediately. Because of this, they don't need to be washed, spoilage is reduced to a minimum, and no fuel will need to be burned during transport, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"Bustanica is driven by powerful technology – machine learning, artificial intelligence, and advanced methods – and a highly specialised in-house team that includes agronomy experts, engineers, horticulturists, and plant scientists," Emirates Airlines explains. "A continuous production cycle ensures the produce is super fresh and clean, and grown without pesticides, herbicides, or chemicals."
That being said, we don't really know what the environmental footprint of the farm will be; the company has declined to share details about how much energy the farm will use. Still, experience from other indoor farms tells us that lighting is one of the main sources of emissions, alongside air conditioners. The latter is bound to require a significant energy investment in such a hot location. That being said, Crop One did say that the farm uses the most efficient systems available and that they are transitioning ECO 1 to run on solar power in the future.
Although the output from ECO 1 is but a small fraction of the total demand of greens in the United Arab Emirates, a country of 10 million people, other large indoor farms are planned here. The local government recently invested $100 million in indoor farming sites in Abu Dhabi, investments that include a new research facility dedicated to the improvement of vertical farming technology.