Davos Agenda

Dubai has the 'world's largest' vertical farm - is this the future of agriculture?

Close-up on a person's hands cutting green leaves with scissors.

Dubai's new vertical farm is set to produce more than 900 tonnes of leafy greens annually. Image: Unsplash/ThisIsEngineering

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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This article was first published in May 2022, and updated in July 2022.

  • The 'world's largest vertical farm' has opened in Dubai.
  • It's set to produce more than 900 tonnes of leafy greens annually, using less water than crops grown in fields.
  • Vertical farming involves growing plants indoors in layers using LED lighting and controlled growing and nutrition systems.
  • The advantages of this kind of agriculture include growing more food in less space and eschewing pesticides.
  • But the cost of real estate and technology, as well as farms running on fossil fuels, are some of the issues preventing greater adoption.

Passengers on certain flights in and out of Dubai might soon be nibbling on lettuce grown in a giant warehouse near the airport.

ECO1, as the facility is known, is a collaboration between Crop One Holdings and Emirates Flight Catering - and said to be the world's largest vertical farm.

The 30,000-square-metre farm is set to produce more than 900 tonnes of leafy greens annually - from spinach to arugula - on stacks of shelves in a process that uses 95% less water than crops grown in fields.

Emirates passengers will be eating the produce from ECO1 from July 2022, while UAE residents can buy the greens in stores. They require no washing, as they're grown without using pesticides or chemicals.

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"It’s our mission to cultivate a sustainable future to meet global demand for fresh, local food, and this new farm is the manifestation of that commitment. This new facility serves as a model for what’s possible around the globe," said Craig Ratajczyk, CEO at Crop One.

He said ECO1 would address supply chain challenges and food security issues, while introducing millions of new consumers to the "benefits of vertically farmed produce".

So what exactly is vertical farming and how could it change traditional agriculture?

What is vertical farming?

Vertical farming involves growing plants indoors, which is why it’s sometimes also known as indoor farming. Instead of sunlight and rain, vertical farms use LED lighting and controlled growing and nutrition systems. Plants are stacked vertically in layers, so many of the farms look like warehouses filled with large shelving units.

And they're springing up all over the world. Crop One already has a flagship facility in Millis, Massachusetts, according to TechCrunch, while other US vertical farms include Bowery Farms in Pennsylvania.

Europe’s biggest vertical farm is being developed outside Copenhagen in Denmark by Danish start-up Nordic Harvest. It is a warehouse-like 7,000-square-metre facility where plants are grown in 14 stacked layers, according to Freethink. When it’s fully completed, Nordic Harvest says its vertical farm will supply 1,000 tonnes of food a year.

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What are the benefits of vertical farming?

Vertical farming is considered a highly efficient and sustainable way of producing food. For instance, Nordic Harvest says it uses 250 times less water than a traditional farm would need.

Automation is the key to this efficiency. Software, robotics and data science are some of the technologies used in vertical farms to monitor crops and create optimum growing conditions. This includes controlling temperature, humidity, CO2 and light.

Controlled environment agriculture like this helps to reduce the vertical farm’s environmental impact, eliminating the need for pesticides for example.

Vertical farms also aren’t reliant on the weather, so fresh produce can be grown all year round.

Nordic Harvest’s vertical farms in Denmark can harvest plants 15 times a year.
Nordic Harvest’s vertical farms in Denmark can harvest plants 15 times a year. Image: Nordic Harvest

How will vertical farming change agriculture?

Instead of growing fruit and vegetables on big farms and then transporting it over long distances in trucks and planes, vertical farming can supply local produce from neighbourhood buildings. This means less fuel is used and the food is fresher.

Vertical farms also tend to produce more than conventional farms. Nordic Harvest says plants can be harvested 15 times a year. In a conventional field, harvesting is twice a year.

By precisely controlling the growing environment, products can last for 13 to 14 days, against three to four days for the equivalent products from conventional agriculture, according to The Choice.

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Why isn’t vertical farming already a global solution?

Cost is a big hurdle for vertical farming. Sun and rain are free. Powering LED lights, software and sophisticated growing systems isn’t.

While some facilities run on electricity from wind turbines, vertical farms running on fossil fuels may be adding to the problem of climate change rather than making it better, says Free Think.

Buying urban real estate to build a vertical farm can also be expensive. In Australia, for example, an average square metre of city centre land in Melbourne is almost $3,500, according to Duke University in the US.

That said, the global vertical farming market is steadily growing, says Statista, and is expected to leap from $5.5 billion in 2020 to around $20bn by 2025.

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Related topics:
Davos AgendaAgriculture, Food and BeverageFood SecuritySustainable DevelopmentClimate Change
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