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Emirates-US joint venture opens world’s largest vertical farm

The Gulf has historically imported 90 percent of its food, constrained by water resources
  • Facility to produce 1m kg of greens annually with 95% less water  
  • Bustanica in Dubai to supply Emirates airline passengers with greens

Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC) and US-based Crop One have announced the opening of Bustanica, the world’s largest hydroponic farm, backed by an investment of $40 million. 

The facility is the first vertical farm for Emirates Crop One, the joint venture between the two companies, and is located near Al Maktoum airport at Dubai World Central.

The 330,000 sq ft facility aims to produce more than 1 million kilograms of high-quality leafy greens annually, which require 95 percent less water than conventional agriculture. At any point in time, the facility grows in excess of a million plants, which will provide an output of 3,000 kilograms per day.

The opening comes as the Gulf region has historically imported around 90 percent of its food requirements, constrained by arid soils, scarce water resources and searing temperatures. 

Concerns about the impact of climate change on food production, coupled with the recent coronavirus-induced global supply chain crisis, are forcing governments to rethink food security.

It also launches as agtech investments globally are soaring, with over $6.4 billion raised last year, which are enabling technology providers and next generation crop producers to grow. 

Abu Dhabi-based Pure Harvest Smart Farms recently secured $180 million in funding from global investors. Saudi-based Red Sea Farms is planning to organise a Series A funding round later this year, on the back of an oversubscribed Pre-Series A round last year of $16 million, and a recent strategic raise of $18.5 million.

Bustanica is driven by machine learning and a specialised in-house team that includes agronomy experts, engineers, horticulturists and plant scientists. 

It will supply passengers on Emirates and other airlines with leafy greens, including lettuces, rocket, mixed salad greens, and spinach with plans to expand into the production and sale of fruit and vegetables for local supermarkets.

Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman and chief executive of Emirates Airline and Group said: “Long-term food security and self-sufficiency are vital to the economic growth of any country, and the UAE is no exception. We have specific challenges in our region, given the limitations around arable land and climate. 

“Bustanica ushers in a new era of innovation and investments, which are important steps for sustainable growth and align with our country’s well-defined food and water security strategies.

“Emirates Flight Catering constantly invests in the latest technologies to delight customers, optimise operations, and minimise our environmental footprint. Bustanica helps secure our supply chain, and ensures our customers can enjoy locally sourced, nutritious produce,” he added. 

Craig Ratajczyk, CEO of Crop One, which is based in Massachusetts, said: “After significant planning and construction, and navigating the unforeseen challenges of the pandemic, we’re thrilled to celebrate this tremendous milestone alongside our joint venture partner, Emirates Flight Catering. 

“It’s our mission to cultivate a sustainable future to meet global demand for fresh, local food. This first large format farm is the manifestation of that commitment. This new facility serves as a model for what’s possible around the globe.”

The 330,000 sq ft facility grows in excess of a million plants at any one time

He added that the farm’s closed-loop system was designed to circulate water through the plants to maximise efficiency. When the water evaporates, it is recovered and recycled into the system, saving 250 million litres of water every year, compared to traditional outdoor farming for the same output.

The vertical farm supports the UAE’s National Food Strategy 2051 agenda, which targets a reliable year-round crop production and stable supply chain. It also supports the UAE’s Water Security Strategy 2036, which calls for 95 percent less water (15 litres for 1kg) to be used than traditional outdoor farming and for clean, nutrient-rich water to be recycled and reused, reducing costs and minimising waste.

EKFC is a partner for over 100 airline customers, hospitality groups and UAE government entities. Each day, the company’s 11,000 employees prepare an average of 200,000 meals and handle 210 tonnes of laundry.

Separately, Elite Agro (EAG), a UAE producer and distributor of fresh produce, said it was increasing its supply of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables to boost food security.

Currently, only 20 percent of fruits and vegetables consumed in the UAE are grown locally, but the pandemic has triggered a significant momentum for local production.

Dr Abdulmonem Almarzooqi, Elite Agro’s divisional CEO, said: “With the rising demand for locally produced food, along with increasing health awareness among the consumers and the adoption of new technologies to optimise production, we expect the market to continue its steady growth over the coming years.”

Last year, EAG’s four farms in the UAE supplied 17,447 tonnes of fruits and vegetables to the local market, and the firm was the largest potato producer.