A growing focus on healthy food, farmed sustainably and locally, has meant that vertical hydroponic farms are finding a home in the UAE. The last few years have seen a marked increase in the number of companies that have launched their vertical farming facilities in the country, providing hotels, cafes, restaurants, and households across the emirates access to a growing portfolio of fresh greens.
Smart Acres, the latest addition to the UAE's hydroponic vertical farming industry, is now producing a line of the freshest, most nutrient-dense greens for UAE residents and businesses. The company has launched in collaboration with n.thing, a Korean-based technology company that designed the farm modules using an award-winning Internet of Things (IoT) based technology system to grow and monitor their greens - a system that not only consumes less resources but generates ultra-high quality crops.
Abdulla Al Kaabi, Founder and CEO of Smart Acres, revealed that vertical farming is a relatively new modern farming concept that was first proposed in the late 1990s. The main advantage of vertical farming technology, he explained, is that you can achieve a huge output in a limited space.
"Our container farms have a crop yield that is 20 times greater than traditional farming methods," he explained. "We currently harvest approximately 10,000kg a year from 120sqm of land, but to achieve the same output in traditional farming methods, you would require over 2,500 sqm of land."
Al Kaabi also explained that the hydroponics method has been around since the 1700s. With the advancement of modern-day technology, companies are now able to use this farming method to cultivate crops commercially. The biggest advantage of hydroponics comes from the decrease in water usage. Smart Acres' method uses up to 10 times less water than traditional farms to grow lettuce.
"We've lost over a third of our arable land on this planet in the past 40 years, and with the increase in population, we will face a great shortage of arable farmland to grow enough food for the world's population by traditional means," Al Kaabi said.
"Freshwater scarcity is also a serious issue that we face as a civilization, and it was listed as the largest global risk by the World Economic Forum in 2019. These two problems are a severe challenge in the UAE. In 2019, the UAE was ranked 10th out of 164 in a global rank of nations where water supplies are most stretched."
Looking ahead, he said that he believed that the future of farming will be a mix of different technologies. "Different crops require different farming methods and there is no one size fits all. For lettuce variety, we strongly believe that we have achieved great efficiency and commercial viability with the mix of vertical farming and hydroponics technology along with the advancement of IoT. The UAE's Food Security Strategy is multi-faceted with the core goals of identifying and diversifying food sources. Local production is a vital component, but it also needs to be supplemented with global imports. Even for local production, optimum farming methods for different crops may vary for rice, strawberry, lettuce, tomatoes, etc."
Currently, Smart Acres grows five different varieties of lettuce on their farm. They take six weeks to grow from seeding to harvest. The first step is to plant the seed in the growth medium which is placed in the germination room. After the seeds have been successfully germinated, they are transplanted into the growth area where light, temperature, airflow, and humidity are all micro-controlled to provide the most optimum environment for the plants to grow.
"We are currently testing many different varieties of lettuces in the UAE," Al Kaabi said. "At the same time, our research team is collaborating with other researchers around the world to develop the most optimum environment for some of the other crops. Our goal is to be able to introduce a new crop every year for the next five years and there is a very good chance that strawberries will be one of the five crops that we may cultivate in the next five years."
Asked about the response that the concept has received, Al Kaabi said that there has been a lot of support and interest from the restaurant and cafÃ© industry in the region. Chefs have been using vertically farmed produce for a few years now, but the scope has only been limited to micro-greens because growing large lettuce heads at a consistent weight can be challenging.
"Sustainable farming practices are very much on the minds of most chefs here in the UAE," he said. "The industry is becoming more aware of how sustainable practices are vital to the safety of the environment and for our survival. We have received a lot of inquiries from restaurants and hotels across the emirates for our crops, which was the result of managing to successfully grow large and premium-quality lettuce heads with consistency. Currently, we have not focused on providing our produce to many outlets as we have set our sights on developing our R&D facility that will spur long-term growth for UAE food security."