The GCC’s first commercial vertical farm, which grows leafy green vegetables using coconut husks instead of soil and requires 90 per cent less water than regular farming, has officially launched in Dubai.
The concept of the vertical farm, similar to that of green houses, grows pesticide-free food without the need for sunlight, soil or chemicals.
Badia Farms, established by Saudi Arabian entrepreneur Omar Al Jundi and British agricultural expert Grahame Dunling, aims to provide a substitute for importing fruits and vegetables into the region from countries thousands of miles away.
Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment, officially inaugurated Badia Farms, describing it as an “exceptional example of how the UAE’s agricultural industry can thrive while protecting our environment for future generations.”
He said the hydroponic technology used for the farm will be a major contributor to agricultural sustainability, food diversity and security, as it enhances crop production and lowers their cost.
“Growing crops in the region has always been a challenge due to the hostile climate and this is where Badia Farms offers a viable solution,” said farm entrepreneur Mr Al Jundi.
“Not only can we grow the freshest greens with no pesticides or chemicals, but we actually do this in the most eco-friendly way possible, using minimal recycled water."
The vertical farm will not only provide a positive impact on food security, but also reduce the carbon footprint that results from transporting imports and save a great deal on transportation costs, according to Jeffrey Culpepper, founder of Agrisecura partners.
“It will have a positive impact on food security as here almost 100 per cent of food is imported.”
“Badia is doing a great job by moving agriculture away from green houses because you don’t only use tremendous amount of water to grow … but the plants then need to be washed of dirt and pesticides.”
But when plants are grown in coconut husks instead of soil, a fraction of the water is used and the produce turns out to be much safer to consume because most of the potential food-borne diseases come from dirt.
“It is a step in the right direction. It is so small right now that it will have no impact on our import dependency, but the more people do this the more people are educated and will look at different ways to get food.”
“Once people find out the tremendous costs of transporting fruits and vegetables from Europe or Jordan or Morocco … people will be looking at food in a very different matter when it comes to waste.”
Currently, the government takes care of transportation costs and the water regular farmers use to grow their crops is also subsidised by the government. Alternative farming methods provide a much cheaper solution if the subsidies stop.
If one eats in the west, or in Asia, they will be eating vegetables that were grown using a tremendous amount of recycled water, Mr Culpepper said.
He agrees that the amount of electric power vertical farming consumes to control the pressure inside the houses could be a downside, but "you are saving on not using water because water costs more than power.”
Moreover, the money spent on powering vertical farms is a fraction of the cost of buying greens and shipping them from other countries.
“For instance, when you go to Spinney’s you find food from California. That is ridiculous. Why buy something from 10,000 miles away?”
Mr Culpepper sees a bright future for vertical farming in the UAE as he believes people are developing an awareness and they tend to want to buy locally grown food.
Their produce will not only be cheaper than imported goods, but fresher, too, as the farms will be producing all year round. Imported goods take two weeks to arrive “in a box placed on the back of a ship”.
Agrisecura and its partners, Van Der Hoeven, have been providing similar vertical farming methods in Dubai since 2012, but Badia is the first to provide vertical farming on a large commercial scale. “They are leading the way for the rest of us,” said Mr Culpepper.
Since December 2017, Badia Farm has been producing 1,000 heads of lettuce and has over 30 clients across the UAE. It also produces an extensive range of micro-greens and baby leaf herb varieties.