Emirates Airline aims high with vertical facility that provides farm fresh to cabin table

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Vertical farms have been sprouting up all over the world in recent years, with a growing number of startups, numbering 61 as of August, committed to nurturing the idea.

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Nearly 70 per cent of the world's fresh water is used for agriculture and soil-based farming. The United Arab Emirates is one of the countries most affected by water shortage, and farming on the land there is a problematic endeavor. But pioneering brand Emirates Airline has whipped up an innovative solution.

This June, Emirates Airline announced it will build the world’s largest vertical farming facility in history. Slated to open in November 2019, the 31.4 million-pound joint venture with Crop One Holdings has been plotted out near Al Maktoum International Airport at Dubai World Central.

Construction begins this November. According to reports, the first of the farm fresh produce will be delivered to Emirates Flight Catering’s customers as soon as December 2019. This will include distribution to 105 airlines and 25 airport lounges that will fuel greens into an estimated 225,000 meals every day. 

The gargantuan operation will cover 130,000 square feet and have a production output equivalent to 900 acres of farmland. At full swing, the facility is expected to harvest three US tonnes (2,700 kg) of high-quality, herbicide-free and pesticide-free leafy greens daily. That’s an enormous endeavor, to say the least. 

In an interview with Produce Business UK, an Emirates spokesperson explained what drove the project:

“As one of the world’s largest airline catering operations, we constantly look at innovation and ways to improve our productivity, product and service quality. We have decided to invest in controlled environment agriculture primarily for security of supply and food hygiene reasons. 

"Introducing the latest technology to our operations with this joint venture, we secure our own supply chain of high-quality and locally sourced fresh vegetables, while significantly reducing our environmental footprint. The proximity of the farm to the point of consumption will substantially reduce carbon emissions associated with transportation. It will also ensure the quick delivery of the fresh products reaching customers within hours of harvest, maintaining high nutritional value.” 

His Highness, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates Airline and Group said: “The announcement is an important milestone for the Emirates Group, for Dubai, and for the UAE. This investment to build and operate the world’s largest vertical farming facility aligns with the UAE’s drive for more agricultural self-sufficiency, a vision which began with the late HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s founding father. The introduction of groundbreaking technology at the facility also enhances Dubai’s position as a global innovation hub.” 

Groundbreaking technology

After a 10-month selection process, Emirates Flight Catering selected Crop One Holdings for cost effectiveness and highest yield per square foot in the industry.

Crop One Holdings, a vertical farming holding company based in San Mateo, California, is indeed credited as the largest modular grower in the world and the longest servicing commercial producer for vertical farms in the United States. “Growing more, using less” is the company’s motto, which is rooted in a powerfully unrivaled technology system where customization, engaging in mechanical and digital control, allows them to achieve 20-60 per cent higher yields per square foot than any other company in the industry. What’s more, marked at just 25 per cent of the capital cost of any vertical farm to date, Crop One Holdings became an obvious choice for the Emirates Group.

“We reviewed many different vertical farm operators in many geographies who grow in different ways," the Emirates spokesperson told Produce Business UK. "After a comprehensive review, we selected an operator that demonstrated the greatest ability in plant science and systems controls allied to already being commercially viable. It was also very important to select a team that we can work with in an open, transparent and cooperative way. That is what we have found with the Crop One team.”

Sonia Lo, chief executive of Crop One Holdings, explains, “Our proven business model has demonstrated profitable commercial production longer than any other major vertical farmer. We are farmers using the most sophisticated plant science and proven business efficiencies to provide market leading consumer products every day. Our selection after a 10-month search by EKFC (Emirates Flight Catering) is a validation of our successful business model that uses patented technology and processes to optimize crop yields and facilitate hyper-growth.”

Although other airlines have dabbled in setting up their own farms, such as JetBlue’s urban farm operation at JFK International Airport in New York in 2015, the Emirates move is making history for its sheer magnitude but also for its powerful local impact in the UAE.

The state of the UAE

In the United Arab Emirates, water is in drastic shortage. In fact, the UAE is one of the 10 most water-scarce countries in the world. Yet, it has one of the highest per capita water usages globally. Reported at 550 liters per person per day, a UAE resident consumes more than double the global national average of 250 liters per person per day, according to the media source, Ecomena.org.

When applying this water shortage conundrum to plant life, things become even more sparse. For instance, when using spray irrigation in a country as arid as the UAE, 60 per cent of the water evaporates before it is even absorbed by plants. As a result, only 40 per cent of the water intended for irrigation is used, which itself is not evenly distributed. This lack of uneven distribution, coupled with the decrease in the amount of water used, is extremely detrimental to plants' health.

While the UAE struggles with water issues, the country faces an even larger problem: food scarcity, with approximately 85 per cent of its food currently imported from abroad. A recent report by the UAE government estimates that the Emirates’ food consumption will reach 59.2 million tonnes by 2021, which means that the UAE’s food imports will likely grow even more.

So how does vertical farming come into play?

The essence of vertical farming

From hydroponics — growing plants without soil — to aeroponics — growing plants with no soil and very little water — and various renditions in between, vertical farming is built on the premise that plants can be grown in optimum conditions, soilless, pesticide-free, 365 days per year. 

Plants are nurtured and cultivated, feeding on nutrient solution instead of soil, with LED grow lights instead of the sun, and can enjoy a full year of harvest without battling out weather conditions and humidity. As for water itself, according to an Association for Vertical Farming study, vertical farming uses 70-95 per cent less fresh water than that used for traditional farming,

It also lends to a significant reduction of fossil fuel usage, as well as the possibility of sustainability in urban environments.

Sounds like a perfect solution for the giant urban metropolis in the desert, Dubai.

UAE leads vertical farming phenomena 

Not only does the Emirates Airline move imply a significant solution for the country at large, the Emirates government has followed suit with new partnerships in vertical farming.

Shortly after the Emirates’ announcement in June, the UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment struck a deal with Shalimar Biotech Industries to build 12 vertical farms in Dubai. 7,600 square metres of land will be carved out for the project, where Shalimar will construct the farms with a water desalination plant, climate-control air conditioning, LED lighting and automatic irrigation systems. 

The collaboration aims to promote new agricultural technologies, provide an educational centre for local farmers, students and researchers, reduce agricultural waste and the risk of infection, achieve year-round crop production and mitigate thermal emissions from agricultural processes. As vertical farming also has a smaller carbon footprint than traditional farming, projects such as this one align with the country’s drive to improve it’s self-sufficiency goals.

With 13 vertical farms in the horizon for the UAE, the rapid nature of change in the country is explicit. To put this into perspective, it was only earlier this year that the GCC region saw the very first commercial vertical farm on its land ever. Badia Farms, which grows leafy green vegetables using coconut husks instead of soil and requires 90 per cent less water than regular farming, was opened in Dubai in March 2018. 

UAE as making big steps in sustainability 

The recent vertical farming acceleration is certainly following suit with the country’s strong policy on sustainability. In recent years, the UAE has been at the forefront in implementing green strategies that support sustainability. In fact, according to the United Nations Sustainable Development Platform, the UAE is credited as a strong advocate for the formulation of Agenda 2030, with the country’s commitment to sustainable development at the heart of the country’s vision for its future. Included in the UAE’s 17 sustainable development goals are ending poverty, protecting the environment and achieving equality, peace and prosperity.   

Ironically enough, although the UAE has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, the leadership attaches great importance to diversifying energy sources by increasing the share of renewable and clean energy. The country has a strong emphasis on recognizing the importance of renewable energy in balancing development and the environment.

As for the Emirates’ vertical farm, it couldn’t be more aligned. Emirates and Crop One Holdings confirm that the facility will use 99 per cent less water than outdoor fields, and since the farm will be located near the airport, there will be less carbon footprint in the delivery of agricultural products from the farm. Crop One Holdings also has confirmed that the vertical farm will be essentially targeting solar energy, as well as using a mix of renewable and utility source electricity. 

The spokesperson for the Emirates told Produce Business UK, “As a leader in the aviation, air services and travel industries, the Emirates Group recognises that environmental responsibility is core to our long-term business success. We’re committed to minimising the environmental impact of our operations across all our businesses and activities, including our supply chain. We aim to meet the needs of our customers while using energy and resources efficiently, minimising waste and operating our assets in the most environmentally responsible manner." 

For the customers on board Emirates Airline, they can expect farm fresh to air cabin food:  The vertical farm is a huge step in guaranteeing the sustainability of the freshest and best produce for our customers," the Emirates spokesperson said. "The high-quality produce will reach the passengers’ plates within 24 hours of being farmed.”

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