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Home » “UAE will become one of the key hubs for vertical farming”: Feras Al Soufi on Bustanica, the world’s largest vertical farm 

“UAE will become one of the key hubs for vertical farming”: Feras Al Soufi on Bustanica, the world’s largest vertical farm 

by Madaline Dunn

At 330,000 sqft and spanning three floors, Bustanica is the world’s largest vertical farm.

Located near Al Maktoum International Airport at Dubai World Central, with an output of over 1,000,000 kg of produce per year, it’s focused on delivering a farm-to-fork experience and supports the UAE’s ongoing efforts to bolster food security.

This week, Feras Al Soufi, General Manager, Bustanica, talks to ESG Mena about production plans, food waste, and vertical farming in the UAE.

Bustanica is owned by Emirates Crop One, a joint venture (JV) between Emirates Flight Catering and indoor vertical farming company Crop One. Tell me about what inspired this partnership.

Emirates Flight Catering constantly invests in the latest technologies to delight customers, optimise operations, and minimise our environmental footprint. Bustanica helps secure their supply chain, and ensures their customers can enjoy locally sourced, nutritious produce. By bringing production closer to consumption, we’re reducing the food journey from farm to fork.

Bustanica is the flagship project of Emirates Crop One, but also Dubai, that shows how the use of innovation and technology can enable local communities to have access to safe and fresh food while reducing water consumption and transportation costs.

Food security is becoming a more and more pressing issue globally with every year. Especially so for the UAE and the Gulf Region, where the arable land is minimal and the temperatures are extreme. We are proud to be pioneering food sustainability and supporting the UAE’s National Food Strategy 2051.

What crops do you produce at your facility, and why?

At the moment, we grow predominantly large leafy greens, various types of lettuces, kale, spinach and microgreens.

There are a number of reasons why we decided to start with the leafy greens, one of the key ones is the quality of the imported product. Leafy greens do not travel well, they also have a higher risk of carrying pathogens. This means: low shelf life, low quality of the product, a lot of wastage, and low nutritional value. At Bustanica, we are able to grow 100% pathogen-free products with superior nutritional value. Moreover, all our products are pesticide-free, herbicide-free and fungicide-free. And being in Dubai, we are able to deliver the farm-to-fork experience. Where the produce harvested in the morning, could land at a dinner table in the evening.

And do you have plans to expand this offering?

Yes, we are actively looking at expanding the range of the products we offer. The strategy is guided by the market needs, feasibility and the impact we will be creating.

We are at an active R&D stage with edible flowers and herbs, such as parsley. In fact, we are proud to say that we are able to produce 100% e-coli-free parsley that is ready to eat right out of the box. With parsley being one of the key products in Middle Eastern cuisine, this is the kind of positive impact on the life of our communities we are aiming to achieve. We are aiming to make it easier for people to be healthy.

On your site, you say you grow “the world’s tastiest and nutritious produce.” How is Bustanica’s produce different from other providers?

Bustanica is built based on more than a decade of R&D.

We are a soilless facility, all plants are grown hydroponically.

We use precision farming techniques that enable us to grow each individual plant in the perfect conditions. Our plants get what they need at exactly the time they need it, ensuring we are growing healthy, robust plants full of nutritional value. Bustanica’s facility is modular, we are able to create different microclimates in each module, thus maximising yield and nutrition. Our AI-driven systems are able to mimic exactly the environment that the plants would be used to in their natural environment, including day and night timings, humidity levels and temperature fluctuations.

All plants are grown in a controlled environment facility, isolated from the outside world and pathogens, this enables us to produce ready-to-eat, chemical-free produce.

What are the benefits of growing crops in the way that you do, and what kind of impact does it have?

Sustainability is one of the main benefits. While reducing water consumption is key and one of the main value propositions of hydroponics, Bustanica’s impact is more than that. We need to look at the full ecosystem to truly understand the positive impact vertical farms such as Bustanica create.

Bustanica uses 95% less water compared to traditional farming, this means we save water, which is scarce in the region. This also means we reduce the carbon footprint, because all water in the region is desalinated, which is a very energy-heavy process. So, using less water means using less energy.

One of the key features of Bustanica’s systems is our closed-loop water circulation. As the plants grow, they perspire, thus increasing humidity in the growing units, we collect the condensate, clean it and re-introduce it back into the system. Thus making sure that as much water as possible is reused.

Another benefit is, of course, bringing healthy, clean and fresh produce closer to the communities. At the same time, reducing the amount of food import required and reducing the carbon miles.

How much energy is required to power your operations, and what energy source do you use?

A share of the energy comes from the solar panels that are installed on our roof. We are working towards a carbon-neutral footprint where all of the energy is sourced from sustainable sources.

Drawing from this, can you tell me about your collaboration with Philips LED Horticulture and the impact of its technology on the crops you grow and your operations in the facility?

Philips offers energy-efficient lighting that also enables us to maximise the growth (speed and size) of the plants, while safeguarding plant health.

And what about your work with Siemens?

For a facility of such large scale, precision is key. Not only for optimising the plant health but also for optimising resources used. We have chosen to work with Siemens to build a smart infrastructure around the farm, which will support our vision of an automation-driven and sustainability-focused vertical farm. Siemens team provided building systems and automation hardware and software from its Digital Industries and Smart Infrastructure portfolios.

How are you tackling food waste as a company?

We are working on closing the waste loop to make sure that nothing of what we produce is wasted. Here are the initiatives (both implemented and the ones in the works):

  • We use multi-harvest scenarios to maximise the output of each plant. Depending on the cultivar, we are able to get 3-6 harvests from one plant.
  • Since our products are ready to eat and are already cut leaves – there is no waste from the consumer side, as they can consume 100% of what is inside the box.
  • We are also working on ways to use the other parts of the plants:

-We are finalising the agreements with some of the fresh juice companies in the UAE for our plant stems to be used in their juice mixes as an added nutrition.

-We are also looking to provide our plant roots as animal feed.

With a growing need to diversify food sources, what is vertical farming’s role in bolstering food security and sovereignty in the region?

One of the key roles of closed environment vertical farming is food security. In a harsh climate like the one in the UAE, we are able to guarantee an all-year-round supply of high-quality and safe produce.

The other is maximising the use of land, while protecting the land from degradation.

Bustanica’s footprint is 10,000 sqm, while to produce the same volumetric output traditionally, it would take 470,000 sqm.

What are your predictions for the growth of the sector – do you foresee more companies moving to the MENA?

With the projected increase in world population and climate challenges we are facing, we foresee the vertical farming industry growing exponentially in the near future.

With the UAE’s commitment towards water and food security, as well as the leadership’s focus on innovation, we are sure that the UAE will become one of the key hubs for vertical farming.

What are your thoughts on bringing down costs within the industry, what’s required, where is the industry now, and what’s ahead?

The objective of any business is to maximise the value for its shareholders and minimise the costs and more often than not, it is not just about reducing something, it is about sustainable changes that can provide additional benefits in the long term, not just for the company but also for the communities and for the planet.

A few clear wins for AgriTech as we see it are:

  • Transitioning to 100% renewable energy sources.
  • Combining scientific and technological advancements to improve and increase automation, thus reducing labour costs and improving efficiency.
  • Transforming byproducts and waste into additional revenue streams

To be able to achieve these wins, close collaboration between the public and private sectors, as well as research institutions and academia, is key.

And what’s on the horizon for the company?

As one of the pioneers of vertical farming at large scale, we will continue sharing our knowledge with the community. Our objective is to continue supporting the UAE’s National Food Strategy 2051 and Water Security Strategy 2036, while providing safe and healthy produce to the communities in the UAE.

We are constantly monitoring the advancements in the latest technology to be able to scale our operations further.

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