Vertical farming rises to new heights in the UAE and Saudi Arabia

AeroFarms opens world’s largest R&D vertical farm in Abu Dhabi, seeking to address mounting food security challenges in the Middle East and other arid regions

From Newark, N.J., to Saudi Arabia, David Rosenberg preaches a gospel that contends bountiful, nutritious produce can be grown without soil and sunshine.

Instead, the agricultural entrepreneur builds sprawling vertical farms where kale, arugula and baby lettuce are bathed in magenta light, roots suspended in the air and cultivated with nourishing mist. He believes that techniques pioneered by his company, AeroFarms, may provide answers to the challenges of food security for billions of people living in arid regions and places where climate change poses a growing threat to agriculture.
“If we use zero soil, we can do a lot more with less,” Rosenberg, the Newark-based company’s co-founder and CEO, told The Circuit.

Last month, AeroFarms opened a 65,000-square-foot (6,040-square-meter) facility in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, that it touts as the world’s largest vertical farm focused on research and development. The company was one of four that split a $100 million grant from the Abu Dhabi Investment Office, or ADIO, aimed at supporting development of agricultural technology. Later this year, AeroFarms will break ground on a vertical farm near the Saudi capital of Riyadh capable of growing 2.4 million pounds (1.1 million kilograms) a year of crops in a joint commercial venture with the kingdom’s $620 billion Public Investment Fund.

“There’s not much arable land [in the Gulf] and not much fresh water, but there are abundant sources of energy,” Rosenberg said, adding, “there’s a lot of capital and a spirit of, ‘Let’s build and embrace new technology.’”

The global vertical farming market is expected to quintuple in size in the next few years, increasing from $4.3 billion in 2021 to nearly $20 billion by 2028, according to a report from The Insight Partners. Vertical farming can produce some 240 times greater yields on 99% less land, compared with conventional farming, the report said.

AeroFarms already runs two commercial vertical farms in Newark and Danville, Va., selling 11 different varieties of packaged greens to retailers such as Walmart and Whole Foods, where the approximately $4.50 a bag price is comparable to field-grown bags of salad. The company focuses on specialty greens with high levels of nutrients, including kale, watercress, mustard greens and arugula. It is testing more than 550 varieties of crops, including 70 types of berries. Premium fruits like strawberries are likely the next big crop for vertical farms, though indoor pollination remains a challenge.

While leafy greens are an ideal market because they grow quickly with minimal space requirements, the UAE facility in Abu Dhabi is looking at a wider variety of crops, including the possibility of growing trees. AeroFarms, for example, is partnering with Cargill Cocoa on a pilot project in Abu Dhabi to grow cocoa trees, which are producing catastrophically low yields due to climate change and warming temperatures. As much as 90% of the fruits and vegetables in the UAE are imported.

“AgTech is a priority sector for the Abu Dhabi government, and our long-term goal is to support the development of innovation that will contribute to solving challenges of regional and global importance,” ADIO Director-General Tariq Bin Hend said at the mid-February launch of the facility, known as AgX.

Rosenberg, who has an MBA from Columbia University and represented the U.S. at World Cup fencing tournaments, winning three championships on the national team, is a serial entrepreneur. Before AeroFarms, he founded Hycrete, based on a weatherizing system his grandfather invented that enables buildings to use less cement. He’s been honored by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader and was a member of the Global Agenda Council on Water Security.

As an American Jew whose company does business in Israel, Rosenberg said he’s had no trouble working in Saudi Arabia and other countries that don’t have diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. In the UAE, which normalized relations with Israel in 2020, he’s found a fascination with AeroFarms’ use of Israeli technology. “They want to lean in and find more collaboration” with Israel, Rosenberg said.

Like other vertical farming companies, AeroFarms uses aeroponics, which means plants are grown in trays with their naked roots dangling in air. The roots are misted with a combination of water and fertilizer on a regular basis. Plant roots love oxygen, and there’s no way to get more direct oxygen than doing away with soil or any growing medium and baring it all, Rosenberg said. Because the water is applied directly to the root, rather than the soil surrounding it, he said, AeroFarms uses 95 percent less water than commercial farms 

Inside the warehouses, the lettuce trays stack up 12 levels high, requiring a cherrypicker-like apparatus to stay abreast of the plants’ developments 35 feet (10 meters) off the ground. Plant biologists clad head-to-toe in medical-grade clean suits keep a careful watch over every aspect of plant growth, using automated sensors, machine vision and artificial intelligence to provide second-by-second updates about everything from temperature, pH, humidity and CO2 content of the air, and the nutrient solution sprayed on the roots. The plants are seeded and raised in optimal lighting and temperature conditions, encouraging fast growth.

AeroFarms is not alone in the UAE’s vertical farming market. Last week, the Italian company Zero opened a 10,000-square-foot vertical farm as a proof of concept that was funded by an agricultural unit of Abu Dhabi’s ADQ holding company. By the end of the year, Zero and ADQ plan to open a commercial vertical farm in the AgTech Park in Al Ain, located some two hours east of Abu Dhabi. 

One challenge to vertical farming is rising energy costs. Rosenberg said AeroFarms looks for ways to incorporate renewable energy into its farms, cycling irrigation and lighting for off-peak times to reduce costs. The biggest use of energy in indoor farming is lighting. Rosenberg said AeroFarms uses blue and red LED lighting that casts a magenta light over the warehouse, facilitating photosynthesis and requiring less energy than white lights.

Profitability is a serious problem for large-scale indoor farming because of the high upfront costs. AeroFarms’ one-acre facility in Newark, N.J., cost $39 million to build in 2015 when an acre of farmland in Iowa cost $8,000. A Cornell University study in 2020 found that a head of lettuce grown at an indoor farm in Chicago was twice as expensive as a head of lettuce grown in California fields.

“Vertical farming is not an answer for everything,” said Oz Kira, a senior lecturer and agricultural researcher at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “There are crops that cannot be grown vertically, at least not in the current state.”

Kira, however, sees vertical farming as an important part of the answer for increasingly urbanized countries, where land is becoming scarcer, and populations continue to grow.

The global population is expected to increase by 2 billion people in the next 30 years, requiring more food production at the same time that agricultural land is disappearing because of development and desertification. Unlike field farms, vertical farms can be located in cities, which means there are lower transportation costs and produce reaches store shelves quicker, Kira said.

Even as the technology continues to improve, Rosenberg said he does not expect that vertical farms will completely replace conventional farming. “Some plants should be grown in the field some parts of the year, some should be grown in greenhouses and some should be grown in vertical farms. The economics are moving in that direction.”

He said agriculture needs to find innovative answers to feed the earth’s growing population, as conventional farms suffer from terrible droughts and catastrophic flooding brought on by extreme weather changes.

“It’s not a question of what we can grow, it’s about what we should grow,” Rosenberg said. “We need to ask, are we solving a problem. There is so much that makes it really hard to farm in the field, and unfortunately that trend is continuing.”

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