Vertical farming company AeroFarms has started construction in Abu Dhabi on a 8,200-square-metre research and development centre, the largest in the world, which aims to advance sustainable agriculture in arid climates.
AeroFarms AgX, the New Jersey company's wholly owned subsidiary in the UAE, is part of a group of four agriculture technology ventures to share in a $150 million investment from Abu Dhabi Investment Office, announced in April 2020, to bring cutting-edge research to the capital to improve food security.
“This important milestone for AeroFarms AgX is another step in the realisation of Abu Dhabi’s mission to ‘turn the desert green’," Tariq Bin Hendi, director general of Adio, said.
Food security and innovation in agriculture are priorities for the UAE.
The Abu Dhabi government has earmarked Dh1 billion ($272m) for the agricultural technology incentive programme as part of its Ghadan 21 accelerator initiative.
While 90 per cent of the nation's food is imported, the UAE aims to increase domestic food production by "30 to 40 per cent in the next 10 years", Mariam Almheiri, Minister of State for Food and Water Security, said in an interview with Bloomberg in April.
UAE residents are already seeing evidence of recent efforts to localise agriculture: locally harvested produce at the market or on dining menus is now a common sight. Much of this surfaced over the past few years as vertical and hydroponic farming ventures, research and cloud-seeding bear fruit.
The site, expected to open in the first quarter of 2022, will employ 60 engineers, horticulturists and scientists and start with research and growing methods for lettuces, tomatoes and berries.
The R&D centre will have high-tech laboratories conducting advanced speed breeding, as well as robotics and automation research aimed at increasing food yields and reducing the resources needed to grow produce.
AeroFarms AgX also plans to partner with local universities on research projects to tackle problems agriculture faces in desert climates.
“This is an important development for AeroFarms as we expand globally," said David Rosenberg, co-founder and chief executive of AeroFarms.
"We are pleased to take this step forward and proud to be a catalyst for helping to establish the emirate of Abu Dhabi as a global hub for AgTech innovation.”
The company monitors 130,000 data points for every harvest and uses 5 per cent of the water consumed by a typical field.
The plants are not 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.
In March, the company announced it would go public on the Nasdaq under the new ticker symbol ARFM through a merger with Texas-based special purpose acquisition company Spring Valley Acquisition.
The deal gives the combined entity an equity value of about $1.2 billion.