As the climate in many parts of the world gets hotter and drier, it’s becoming increasingly crucial to find innovative ways to grow food. Vertical farming is one solution that’s being widely adopted, with farms springing up everywhere from the Netherlands to Pennsylvania to Singapore, and big retailers like Walmart jumping on the bandwagon too.
The United Arab Emirates—one of the hottest, driest places you can find—has several existing vertical farms, but this week saw the opening of the biggest one yet. At 330,000 square feet—that’s more space than three square city blocks—ECO 1 is not only the largest vertical farm in the UAE, but reportedly the largest in the world.
The facility functions the same way other vertical farms do, that is, by using LED light and a carefully-measured cocktail of nutrients to grow plants without soil or sunlight. In photosynthesis (which can also now be artificially recreated), red and blue wavelengths of light interact with chlorophyll to help form glucose and cellulose, the structural material in cell walls. LEDs can reproduce this effect, and can actually do it faster than the sun, because they cut out elements of sunlight that plants don’t use efficiently, like heat.
What’s different about ECO 1 is its scale. At the beginning of this year Singularity Hub reported on a vertical farm being built in Pennsylvania, which at the time was labeled the world’s largest—but its 250,000 square feet just got knocked out of the park by ECO 1’s 330,000 (and 175 yards in length—that’s slightly less than one and a half American football fields).
The Dubai facility has the capacity to produce over two million pounds of leafy greens annually, and will grow lettuces, arugula, mixed salad greens, and spinach.
ECO stands for Emirates Crop One; the vertical farm is a joint venture between Crop One Holdings (a Massachusetts-based vertical farming company) and Emirates Flight Catering (the catering business that serves Emirates Airlines). Greens from the vertical farm will be served onboard Emirates flights, and will also be sold in grocery stores in the UAE. Since they’re grown in a sterile environment without pesticides, herbicides, or chemicals, the greens come ready-to-eat and don’t need to be washed.
The UAE is in many ways an ideal location for vertical farming, if not a place where the technology may soon become essential. It gets an abundance of sunlight but doesn’t have much water to speak of (it was, fittingly, the field testing site for a nanoparticle technology that helps sandy soil retain water and nutrients); that means vertical farms could use energy from solar panels to grow food indoors using 95 percent less water than traditional agriculture.
ECO 1’s location just outside Dubai follows the trend of most vertical farms being near big cities. As the world population continues to grow and urbanize, a lot more people will be buying all their food in stores rather than producing any of it on farms or in gardens. Agricultural yields, then, will have to increase significantly, and since much of the world’s farmable land is already being farmed, we’ve got out work cut out for us in terms of getting more resourceful with our food supply.
ECO 1 opened this week, and while it’s the biggest vertical farm in the world at the moment, it likely won’t be long before it’s unseated by an even bigger one; these things just seem to keep on growing.
Image Credit: Emirates