Construction begins in Dubai on 19 November of the world’s largest vertical farm, and it’s expected to take a year to complete. Culture Trip speaks to Crop One Holdings about how it’s developing the world’s largest vertical farm (at 130,00 square feet, or 900 acres) in the desert city.
US-based Crop One Holdings – the vertical farm operator behind FreshBox Farms – has teamed up with Emirates Flight Catering on the world’s largest vertical farm, costing £30 million.
The Dubai-based airline will be the exclusive distributor of the brand’s products, which are known to be much more eco-friendly than traditional farming, which is based on treating soil to grow crops.
A significant 99 percent less water is required for vertical farming. It’s also known as ‘controlled environment agriculture’ or ‘digital distributed agriculture’ and is characterised by growing in stacked shelves or towers that allow plants to be grown in more than one layer above the ground. And as it’s all done indoors, farmers don’t have to rely on the natural seasons, but use artificial light.
“Greenhouses, which also grow vertically, are generally not considered vertical farming because they do not exert the level of control over the plants’ growing environment that vertical farming does, and because they use sunlight,” Ming Zhu, business analyst at Fresh Box Farms, tells Culture Trip.
When it comes to Dubai Al Maktoum Airport at Dubai World Central, the vertical farm will use a specific combination of LED lighting, nutrient formula, water flow and air temperature in a digitally controlled environment to grow leafy greens for people travelling in the region.
So far, the airline company has shared that its Middle East network will be served the greens, but a spokesperson for Emirates Flight Catering tells Culture Trip that it will eventually go further afield.
“The plan is that we will market and sell the products as widely as possible,” the spokesperson says. “We will be supplying the produce to Emirates airline, along with the other 105 airlines that we cater for out of Dubai. We also plan to expand into the retail and FMCG markets in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region.”
In general, it shows potential for solving food issues in the UAE – which imports 98 percent of its greens, because of its desert climate – and to encourage serving more homegrown produce. As a side effect, it will also reduce the environmental footprint of traditional outdoor farming on a huge scale.
It’s something that has been a success for Crop One Holdings for a long time now, with existing locations in Boston, Massachusetts, and three more locations in the US breaking ground in 2018. Unlike their forthcoming Dubai outpost, which will serve travellers, they have 38 different customers in Boston, from retailers to wholesalers.
“The success is due to the fact that our farm is at gross profit and has been since December 2016 – this is unique in the industry,” Sonia Lo, chief executive officer of FreshBox Farms, tells Culture Trip. “Boston is successful because it’s a good value market – i.e. lettuce prices are strong (just as they are in Dubai) and it’s a market with a demographic that likes and values healthy eating.”
With water use down to 1 percent of that used in conventional farming in California, Washington and Arizona, the eco-friendly company is likely to build farms in other countries in the future. Lo adds, “We plan to serve a wide variety of customers around the region.”
Just as well, considering many countries in the Middle East lack sufficient rainfall. Using electricity in farming is actually cheaper than using water in the desert city. They manage to do it by recycling water that comes from the harvest in a sanitary way – something that even greenhouses can’t achieve.
“Our growing enclosures started with a standard form factor of a refurbished shipping container. Our water usage in one of those enclosures was 18,000 gallons of water per year,” Zhu explains. “We captured condensation and evaporation and recycled those for the plants’ use. In conventional agriculture, 90 percent of the water sprayed on crops is lost to evaporation. Even with drip irrigation systems, water loss to evaporation is significant.
“In vertical farming, this water is captured and re-used because it is a closed-loop system. To produce the same quantity of vegetables in conventional farming as we do year-round, it would take the equivalent of 46 million gallons of water.” As vertical farming doesn’t do this, it means little to no contamination, and bacterial counts can be as much as 600 times less than field growing.
If anything, the health of produce from indoor farming is better than that farmed using other methods. Crop One will ensure the vegetables go from farm to fork in less than 24 hours, and with the clean leaves idea catching on, Crop One plan to go into growing herbs such as mint and basil, and even strawberries, next.
But for now, travellers can look forward to enjoying fresh food with a fraction of the harmful bacteria of field-grown washed produce, higher nutrient values in food due to the phytonutrients not decaying and crunchy bites that are low in nitrates.
“Field-grown produce has the nitrate equivalent of processed meat because of the way it is fertilized,” Zhu warns. At the vertical farm in Dubai, three tons (2,700 kilograms) will be produced per day without the use of any herbicides and pesticides.
One of the reasons they’ve chosen Emirates to break into the region is they are the world’s largest flight catering operator by volume, serving over 180,000 meals a day. “And because the local retail and wholesale market is very attractive,” Lo adds.
It’s something the company’s competitor in the region, Badia Farm, would agree with. They were the first in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and serve restaurants and caterers across Dubai with fresh rocket, mustard, cress and kale. Rumour has it Badia is planning to double its operation with a vertical offering in Saudi Arabia.
For the arid lands of the UAE, which has only a six-month window for tradition farming in oasis areas, this is made even more difficult with locust plagues and threats of intense heat.
Vertical farming seems to be the future for the region. Since the announcement of the world’s largest vertical farm coming to Dubai, the UAE has revealed plans to launch 12 additional operations, paving the way for a more self-sufficient country when it comes to fresh produce.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.