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11/07/2018 – Sustainability / Agriculture / Construction / Crop One / Emirates Flight Catering / Dubai

Vertically integrated growth: How a new US$40m facility could herald the future for farming

Crop One and Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC) have launched a US$40 million joint venture to build the world’s largest vertical farm in Dubai, near Al Maktoum International Airport. Given the projected efficiencies and other remarkable advantages, the new facility could provide a blueprint for the future of farming in a resource-constrained world.


As land resources dwindle and climate change ushers forth uncertainty in terms of volatile weather conditions and the onset of new invasive insect species, combined with the constant battle to prevent pathogens from entering the supply chain and new demand patterns based on the increased rate of urbanisation across the world, the benefits of vertical farming are becoming more compelling by the day. 


Put simply, vertical farming produces crops in indoor farms using technology to ensure pesticide-free, optimal growing conditions with digital and mechanical (rather than chemical or genetic) processes for plant control. The farms can be located anywhere because temperature, humidity, light, water and plant nutrients are all provided in a controlled environment.  Plants are grown in a soil-less growth medium using nutrient solutions that far more efficiently produce fast-growing, healthy plants.


And there are few places on Earth where vertical farming innovation could be of greater benefit than the bustling sprawl of desert city Dubai, whose sub-tropical, arid climate means average temperature hits 42ºC in August. Accordingly, the recent announcement of the JV to site the world’s largest such facility in the emirate was deemed by His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates Airline and Group, to be an important milestone for the Emirates Group, for Dubai, and for the UAE. “This investment to build and operate the world’s largest vertical farming facility aligns with the UAE’s drive for more agricultural self-sufficiency, a vision which began with the late HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s founding father. The introduction of ground-breaking technology at the facility also enhances Dubai’s position as a global innovation hub.”


Facilitating “hyper-growth”


Crop One – the US firm selected to be EKFC’s joint-venture partner following a 10-month search – is the world’s largest vertical farmer and boasts the longest commercial operating experience in the segment, according to its CEO, Sonia Lo, who says her company’s selection by the in-flight caterer was “validation of [Crop One’s] successful business model that uses patented technology and processes to optimise crop yields and facilitate hyper-growth”.


Once completed, the vertical farm facility – to be located at Dubai World Central – will cover a modest 130,000 square feet. Astonishingly however, the facility will achieve a production output equivalent to 900 acres of farmland. At full production, the facility will harvest three US tons (2,700 kg) of high-quality, herbicide-free and pesticide-free leafy greens daily.


While the efficient savings regarding land-use are impressive, the reductions achieved in terms of water consumption at the new facility are set to be even more astounding. The new JV’s farm facility will use an incredible 99 per cent less water than outdoor fields – or just a drop and a half of water for every gallon of water used on conventional farm. 

Saeed Mohammed, CEO of Emirates Flight Catering, and Sonia Lo, CEO of Crop One Holdings

Better for plant and planet


Vertical farming has many benefits beyond reducing land and water inputs, however. It removes farm field machinery (and thus associated fossil fuel consumption) from the equation. Meanwhile, the proximity of the farm to the point of consumption (that is, within the city) also substantially reduces carbon emissions associated with transportation. Moreover, such proximity ensures the swift delivery of the fresh products, which reach customers within hours of harvest, thus maintaining high nutritional value – of particular importance when dealing with highly perishable items like leafy greens. 


Taking the growing process out of the field and into an indoor facility also removes all the biological threats – the pathogens and bugs – that often blight vegetation. The result is a clean, controlled environment, as Ms Lo points out: “We do not use pesticides, fungicides, and so on – we are engaging in mechanical and digital control, in order to create the perfect growing environment for a plant,” she points out. Aside from creating healthier food, by removing the need for such chemicals from the land, vertical farming also eliminates damaging agricultural run-off, thus improving the environment too.


Such advantages mean that while the cost of establishing indoor facilities such as the one upcoming in Dubai is clearly considerable, the payback will be swift, while the level of control over the growing process could prove invaluable. Construction of the new facility in Dubai is scheduled to start in November 2018 and will take approximately one year to complete, with the first products expected to be delivered to EKFC’s customers, including 105 airlines and 25 airport lounges, in December 2019. Expect to see plans for many more vertical farms sprouting up across the world before then.

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