Inside Emirates' Dubai desert farm that produces more than 1,000 tonnes of greens a year

Bustanica's team of experts grow spinach, kale and lettuce on land near Al Maktoum International Airport

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A vertical farm being run by Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC) in the Dubai desert could play a vital role in tackling food security issues in the region, a senior figure said on Tuesday.

The three-hectare farm near Al Maktoum International Airport is a joint venture between EKFC and Crop One, a firm specialising in technology-driven indoor vertical farming.

It is estimated the vertical farm is able to produce more than 1,000 tonnes of leafy greens each year, or more than three tonnes per day.

The National took a tour of the vertical farm, which the company says is the largest such venue in the world.

We can harvest the products at 6am and have it on your plate by 2pm
Robert Fellows, Emirates Crop One

“What we are doing is supporting food security by putting out locally grown produce to the UAE market,” said Robert Fellows, production director with Emirates Crop One.

“A lot of the food consumed in the UAE is imported, so we are trying to reduce that to reduce the impact on the environment.

“Emirates Flight Catering is already using the products on board flights and, within two to three weeks, they will be available to buy in supermarkets as well.”

The farm, called Bustanica (the Arabic word for your garden or orchard), has three floors where four different kinds of lettuce, kale and spinach are produced.

There are also plans to grow fruits and vegetables in the future.

The plants are grown in the facility using hydroponic methods, which grow plants without the use of soil and use 70 to 90 per cent less water than conventional farming.

They are so clean that the packaging comes with a warning, Mr Fellows said.

“One of the stipulations we insist on is the product is not washed,” he said.

“That’s because the product is already so clean that any further handling could reintroduce contaminants into it.”

Consistent quality

Vertical farming is the name given to crops being layered on top of each other to ensure the space is used to its full potential.

The method is widely regarded as a solution to the long-standing problem of being able to find farming space in expanding urban regions, as well as providing farming facilities in climates where it would not have traditionally been possible.

“One of the advantages of this method is that a lot of products will only grow in certain conditions in certain climates at certain times of the year,” Mr Fellows said.

“Here you have the ability to get a uniformity of product with a consistent quality every single day of the year.”

The plants are grown in membranes, which means there is no soil used at all in the process, reducing the need for pesticides and other chemicals to protect them.

The facility has 27 rooms, known as modular growth units — each measuring 550 square metres ― where the plants are grown.

Each MGU has 21 racks with six shelves that each hold 12 boards, with 30 plants in each individual board.

This equates to more than 45,000 plants per room, resulting in more than one million plants in production at any one time.

It takes two weeks for the plants to grow from seeds to plantlets and four weeks until being transplanted to the first harvest.

“This is an industry that is only going to grow because it offers so many solutions,” Mr Fellows said.

“We can harvest the products at 6am and have them on your plate by 2pm.

“A lot of the time when products have been imported, they lose nutrients because it can take several days for them to reach the consumer.”

The advent of vertical farms will go a long way to addressing the issues of food security, he added.

The Middle East and Africa have some of the highest levels of food insecurity in the world, according to the Global Food Security report released last month.

However, the same report also praised the UAE for its efforts in the agri-tech sector to help to tackle food security problems.

Updated: August 10, 2022, 8:00 AM