Eighteen months after breaking ground in Abu Dhabi, US vertical farming company AeroFarms has opened its 6,000 square-metre research and development centre, the largest of its kind in the world, with the aim of advancing sustainable agriculture in arid climates.
UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment Mariam Almheiri called the opening a great achievement for the region, noting that 80 per cent of the nation's food is imported and less than five per cent of land is suitable for farming.
Advancing indoor vertical farming, which relies on precise environmental control systems, less water and none of the pesticides used in traditional farming, could transform the region's potential as an agricultural producer.
AeroFarms AgX, the New Jersey company's wholly owned subsidiary in the UAE, is part of a group of four AgTech ventures to share in a $150 million investment from Abu Dhabi Investment Office (Adio), announced in April 2020, to bring cutting-edge research to the capital to improve food security.
AeroFarms' partnership with Adio "reflects our bigger commitment ... to commercialise new products for the region and the world,” David Rosenberg, the co-founder and chief executive of AeroFarms, said.
"There are few parts of the world where there's the belief of 'we can do anything'," he told The National at the time of the project's announcement.
"In the UAE, you have boldness of 'let's do it bigger, better' and that was very attractive to us."
Abu Dhabi has invested tens of millions of dollars into AgTech start-ups with a focus on technology-based solutions to boost food production, including automation, robotics and novel approaches to greenhouse and vertical farming.
The UAE announced a national food security strategy in 2018 and is doubling down on its sustainability efforts as it prepares to host Cop28 later this year.
The new AeroFarms AgX R&D centre will employ over 60 engineers, horticulturists, and scientists to staff the laboratories conducting research into genetically modified crops and automated growing practices.
The company also said it plans to develop machine learning and robotics at the site with the aim of increasing food yields and reducing the resources needed to grow produce.
The plan is to partner with local companies and universities on research projects to tackle problems of agriculture within desert and arid climates.
AeroFarms AgX announced its first local partnership agreement with Abu Dhabi AgTech firm Silal, an ADQ-owned company. The partnership will focus on R&D to commercialise crops like tomatoes and peppers.
Salmeen Alameri, chief executive of Silal, said its collaboration with AeroFarms marks a milestone towards developing more effective long-term agriculture practices in Abu Dhabi.
AeroFarms is a 19-year-old company that sells a variety of greens in some of the biggest US retailers including Walmart and Amazon-owned Whole Foods.
In 2021, AeroFarms said it was scrapping plans to go public via a special purpose acquisition company, saying it was not in the interest of shareholders to do so.