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Dubai builds world’s largest vertical farm

The city known for importing almost all of its produce will now grow 2 million pounds of leafy greens each year inside the world’s largest vertical farm.

As the world begins to turn its back on oil in favour of green energy, the United Arab Emirates must follow suit or risk falling behind.

In 2021, the UAE set out plans to solidify itself as a global hub for sustainable technology and has started making investments to kickstart its green economy.

It is determined to transition to renewable energy, adopt environmentally friendly urban planning, and improve resource efficiency for local water, electricity, and recycling programs.

And although limited supply of water and arable land in Dubai has typically posed challenges for boosting its agricultural sector, things may soon change in light of ECO 1 – the world’s largest vertical farm – located right beside the Dubai airport.

Embracing the vertical farm method

Whether you’re in a restaurant, supermarket, or taking off in an Emirates airplane, 90 percent of the fresh produce you see in the city of Dubai has been imported from Europe or elsewhere.

Seeking to change that, Emirates Flight Catering has partnered with Boston-based company Crop One to build a massive 333,000 square foot facility that houses growing lettuce, arugula, spinach, and mixed greens.

Named ECO-1, the farm uses 95 percent less water than required for growing greens in a field and does not require pesticides or herbicides as a result of its controlled environment.

The lighting, humidity, and nutrients supplied to the produce are all tracked and adjusted by AI within the facility, and despite this tech being quite pricey, the large output of produce – about 2 million pounds per year – will quickly offset the investment.

Are vertical farms the golden ticket to green farming?

Locally grown food typically has a smaller carbon footprint due to less travel from farm to plate, serves to better benefit the local economy and farmers, and also reduces the risk of food spoilage.

But whether vertical farms truly are a more sustainable option will depend on how they are powered, and Emirates Flight Catering has declined to comment on how much energy it takes to run ECO-1.

For now, it looks like the farm’s carbon footprint may not be a huge improvement from imported food, as ECO-1 sources its energy from ‘conventional suppliers’ -– which one can only assume means oil and gas.

Of course, this doesn’t bode so well, as Dubai’s desert climate requires the facility to be air conditioned and constantly monitored by machine learning technology.

That said, the company has outlined plans to transition to solar power in the near future.

The silver lining

Thanks to the Green Economy for Sustainable Development plan, we’ll likely hear news of more vertical farms popping up across the UAE in coming years. And chances are, they’ll be built to run on renewables.

Abu Dhabi’s government has already invested $100 million into indoor farming. Part of the funding will support a local research facility focused on improving the methods and technology vertical farming requires.

Dubai itself has taken other steps to reduce its environmental impact, such as investing in electric buses, slashing its single-use plastic bottles through the Dubai Can initiative, and pledging to ban plastic bags by the end of 2024.

The region became wealthy in the 60s after it struck ‘black gold’, giving it a strong hand in the political economy. Now, it will have to adapt its resources and technology to a changing world – one that favours sustainability – to maintain its pole position.