AeroFarms, a sustainable indoor agriculture company building the biggest vertical farm of its kind in the world, received more than 9,000 job applications for work at the massive desert agriculture research facility in Abu Dhabi, its chief executive said.
The seventeen year-old New Jersey company is part of a group of four agri-tech ventures to share in a $100 million investment from Abu Dhabi Investment Office (Adio), announced in April, to bring cutting-edge research to the capital to improve food security.
"We'll be growing new plants in Abu Dhabi that we aren't growing anywhere else in the world," David Rosenberg told The National.
Food security is a pressing concern for nations around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic as disrupted supply chains have led to food shortages and a groundswell of support for locally sourced agriculture.
The number of additional people suffering from malnutrition once the pandemic subsides may reach 80.3 million depending on the economic contraction, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
Last month, Abu Dhabi said it will offer more than Dh110m in financial incentives to agricultural technology companies looking to set up operations in the emirate in the coming months.
AeroFarms is one of several agri-tech businesses already taking root in the UAE as demand for locally grown food soars on the back of the coronavirus pandemic.
But unlike most of the ventures, AeroFarms’ Abu Dhabi site will not be a commercial-scale operation. Instead, it is dedicating the space to research and the question, “Can we grow better?” Mr Rosenberg said.
AeroFarm’s 8,200-square metre vertical farming centre in Abu Dhabi, on track to plant its first crops by mid-2021, will be the site of research funded in part by a $7.5m grant from the US Department of Agriculture.
As the principle researcher, AeroFarms plans to bring a consortium of growers, genetics companies and equipment manufacturers including BASF, Benson Hill Biosystems, Fluence Bioengineering, Intrexon, Japan Plant Factory Association and Priva, to Abu Dhabi to develop new ways of growing crops indoors.
The aim is to employ more than 60 engineers, horticulturists and scientists and to start with research and growing methods for lettuces, tomatoes and berries.
Agri-tech companies like AeroFarms are developing ways of growing crops to slash energy and water consumption through a combination of data science, automation and advancements in horticulture.
The Abu Dhabi site will have a prototyping workshop to develop tools for automation in seeding, harvesting and optimising levels of light, nutrients and water.
“One automates for two reasons,” Mr Rosenberg said. “To lower costs from a labour standpoint or to improve quality.”
The company said it monitors 130,000 data points for every harvest and uses 5 per cent of the water consumed by a typical field.
The plants aren’t grown in water or soil, but rely on aeroponics, which mists the crops with a balance of water and nutrients without the use of pesticides.