by Nasreen Abdulla
Wednesday August 10, 2022
Photo by Rahul Gajjar
The future of agriculture is amidst us here in the UAE. The
world's largest vertical farm in the UAE is promising to deliver one million
kilograms of green leafy vegetables a year, with the plants going from seed to
harvest in just six weeks while utilising 95% less water than traditional
The farm that began operation earlier this year utilises the
hydroponics method of cultivation and currently grows spinach, kale, arugula
and four varieties of lettuce, namely Romaine, Ruby Sky, Lalique and Batavia.
It is recommended not to wash these leafy greens before use
due to the non-contaminated, carefully controlled process in which they are
grown. The harvested produce from this facility is expected to be available in
retail outlets by the end of this month.
Emirates Bustanica vertical farm in Dubai South. Photo by Rahul Gajjar
Located near Dubai World Central, Al Maktoum International
Airport, the venture is a milestone for the UAE. Bustanica, which means your
orchard in Arabic, is a joint venture between Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC),
one of the world’s largest catering operations serving more than 100 airlines,
and Crop One, an industry leader in technology-driven indoor vertical farming.
During a media tour, the team of experts at the facility
walked Khaleej Times team through the process of growing crops, from planting
the seed to harvesting the leaves multiple times.
The first stop of the tour is at the Plant Development Unit
(PDU) where the seeds to be planted are carefully selected to suit the
conditions. Here, they are sown into single pod-like growth material either by
hand or vacuum sowing methods. "Generally, non-lettuces are hand sown
because they are smaller," said Robert Fellows, Production Director,
Bustanica. "The vacuum sowing method can sow 162 seeds in 40 seconds. So
it is a lot quicker."
Once the seeds are sown, they are kept in the PDU for up to
two weeks. Here they are wetted and subjected to dark treatment to mimic the
conditions of traditional agriculture. “The purpose of this is to grow the
healthiest plantlets possible,” said Robert Fellows.
After two weeks, the young plants are transported to one of
the 27 Modular Grow Units (MGU), where they are spaced out and planted into the
boards which has only water underneath it. Over 45,000 plants can be grown in
Within six weeks, the plants are fully grown and ready to be
harvested. The facility harvests all its crops multiple times to make optimum
use of the resources that is put in. “The benefit of multiple harvests is that
since the roots are established, the crops will go quicker each time,” said
Aaron Moore, Production Manager at the facility. The facility does not use any
pesticide or fertilizers and cultivates produce of the highest quality.
Photo by Rahul Gajjar
“We pride ourselves about our quality,” said Robert Fellows.
“Irrespective of which time of the year it is, we are able to produce the same
quality of crops all year round.”
Due to the controlled manner in which the crops are grown,
the produce is uncontaminated and ready to be consumed without even being
washed and will stay fresh for several weeks in a refrigerator.
Technology is at the heart of the functioning of Bustanica.
“We control every element within a MGU,” said Aaron Moore. “From the room
temperature to the humidity, the air quality and the water quality is overseen
by us. We also have an automatic dosing system that allows us to control the
nutrients that are being introduced into the water.”
Moore walks around with an iPad with him at all times which
allows him to monitor the conditions of every MGU at all times. “The rooms are
monitored 24*7,” he said. “Data collection is a key aspect for us. If there was
a system issue or anything of that sort, everyone would react immediately. It
allows us to preemptively solve issues before they arise.
The crops that are grown without soil have their roots
submerged in purified water which is monitored for nutrients at all times. The
overhead LED lights are adjusted according to the growth of the plants.
Bustanica also takes sustainability very seriously and does
everything it can to reduce its carbon footprint. Even though it utilizes 95%
less water than traditional agriculture, the farm reuses its water. The
moisture that fully the grown plants produce is collected using a HVAC system
and recycled within the plant.
The final produce, which is packed in recycled plastic
containers, will be introduced into the meals of several flights operated by
EKFC in a phased manner. These will also be available for consumers to buy at
leading retail outlets soon. "We will be looking at what kind of response
we will get from people and then decide whether to cultivate more crops,"
said Aaron Moore. "We are considering the possibilities of strawberries
and tomato as well. However, for now we are going to stick to the green leafy