WKND Special: Food revolution with Dubai vertical farms
An Al Quoz-based indoor vertical farm is setting a new template for food production.
Imagine an ultra-modern, high-tech farm right in the middle of a desert, where fresh vegetables are being grown without soil or sunlight. Al Quoz-based facility Uns Farms is an indoor vertical farm that is growing high quality, pesticide-free, farm-fresh local produce in a controlled, indoor environment using hydroponic technology and LED lights. Produce includes greens like kale, mustard, basil, lettuce, eggplant and capsicum, as well as a wide variety of crops ranging from leafy to micro greens. The farm, which began production in January last year, is on a 3,000 sqm plot of land in one of Dubai's main industrial areas, and produces crops equivalent to 5,000 sqm of land. The idea is to create natural, healthy and safe food options that can be produced with optimal resources throughout the year, even during peak summers.
"Agriculture has progressed drastically over the decades," says Mehlam Murtaza, executive director of Uns Farms. "It went from field farming to greenhouses, but both these models demand nature's aid. The Middle East is challenged in terms of the weather. It's hot, humid and there's scarcity of water. Vertical farming, on the other hand, is a model that can be adopted anywhere in the world. It is resource-efficient and the climate and temperature are controlled, which, in the context of the GCC, is perfect."
The sprawling indoor facility in Al Quoz uses three stages of farming to grow crops. Mehlam explains the first stage as being one where seeding is done. "That's where we are more efficient because we put one seed per plug." In the subsequent nursery stage, the seed grows into a small baby plant, which is then ready for transplanting. "That's when the root has developed into a certain amount as the plant requires more space to grow," says Mehlam. The final stage is when the crops grow. After the harvest, the plants are processed and packaged for distribution.
An indoor farming environment demands appropriate lighting. "In terms of light, the farm has energy-saving LED spectrums, which have different biological effects on the plant. For example, the red spectrum elongates the plant, the blue spectrum makes it thick, the green spectrum aids in health and immune system of the crop," says Mehlam.
Vertical farming also has a solution to concerns related to water. "What you see in soil farming is that you would drip-irrigate or spray water on the floor. A lot of that water goes into the earth and is lost. Hydroponics feeds the root and drains out into a tank and goes into a circular system, where the water is reused and that's how we save 90 per cent of water."
There is a growing need for local produce to be safe and fresh, and warehouse farms like Uns are responding to that demand. As the CEO of Uns Grahame Dunling puts it, "We are very local and centralised with no outdoor influences. So, if there is anything in the atmosphere, it doesn't affect our crops." In fact, Covid-19 has brought about renewed focus on vertical farming. "In pre-Covid times, we had difficulty in explaining to consumers what indoor farming really is, but the pandemic made us realise the fragility of the supply chain. A lot of our customers had issues importing food, and with the UAE being a major food importer, it seemed to be a very big challenge. Because of Covid, we were able to expand and show people the importance of locally-owned produce," says Mehlam.
Today, Uns produces anywhere between 1,000 to 1,500kgs of vegetables every day and supplies to gourmet chefs, hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and hypermarkets. Much to his gratification, Grahame notes that his modern farm is a 'choice for the future'.