Mar 15, 2023
10 Key Takeaways from the AeroFarms Abu Dhabi R&D Farm Opening & AgTech Innovation Summit
In February, I visited the new AeroFarms R&D facility, intended to bring the latest in vertical farming and indoor farming research and development to the UAE. Emulating a Hollywood premier, featuring a red carpet, dozens of photographers, VIP guests, a dramatic curtain reveal, and even a smoke machine, the farm opening was an elaborate and exciting experience for a vertical farming nerd like myself. It was great to see one of the earliest VF companies celebrating their growth with familiar faces from around the world.
This positive and inspiring experience left me with 10 major takeaways for the rapid growth of these technologies in the UAE and the wider GCC region:
#1: Food security ensures availability, accessibility, adequacy, acceptability, and agency. Urban agriculture is often a successful solution to addressing issues of food insecurity. However, several speakers noted vertical farming in particular plays a critical role in growing more nutritious food, and thus it is important to shift our language towards “nutrition security,” instead of the typical reference to food security. Considering that most of us don’t eat enough leafy greens, compounded with the fact that they are not directly related to food security, I agree that vertical farming could be better associated with the ideas of nutrition security.
#2: Projects of this scale and impact require partnerships across public and private sectors. AeroFarms partners with Cargill, Bell/Nokia, local academics, and more. This is key to all advancements in the industry – no one can solve anything alone.
#3: Vertical farming is still being referred to as “less carbon-intensive” than outdoor farming by public and private leaders. This is generally false, and spreading this misinformed claim must be avoided. While there is some truth to the argument that the farms could eventually become carbon neutral, the industry as a whole must acknowledge that short term, VF does indeed emit more carbon through construction and operations than field farming.
#4: Vertical farms will struggle to scale without government subsidies. Like most VF facilities globally who are unable to independently cover their finances, AeroFarm’s large-scale R&D facility received significant support from ADIO. The AgTech fund by ADIO is intended to grow AgTech projects in the region as well as create high paying jobs in Abu Dhabi. Until VF economics are fully proven at scale, the future of the sector remains relevant and lies in subsidizing VF.
#5: “50% of growing high quality crops relies on genetics”. A large seed breeder asked why there was such a significant focus on equipment and technology if the biggest difference will be made through genetics. It will be interesting to see when larger seed companies will be compelled to shift their focus on the CEA market. For now, the CEA market is quite small for these companies.
#6: Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) can be successful through high and low tech solutions. The low-tech solutions must be included in the discussion and receive equal if not increased funding and focus. For instance, what is more sustainable when considering the short term and the long term: growing year-round in the UAE and accruing high carbon and capital costs, or cutting these costs through investing in low-tech seasonal solutions that rely on importing crops to the UAE?
#7: Increasing food production is only part of the solution, we must also dramatically reduce food waste! There are many ways to tackle this challenge, such as the UAE Food Waste Pledge in the hospitality sector.
#8: Vertical farming and their operations can – and should – support local farming, even open field agriculture (OFA). Across the sector, the relationship between VF and OFA should be connected to the wider food system, such as AgX leading by example to support local farms in the UAE with research and seedlings.
#9: Flying drones can help in vertical farming! Initially a skeptic myself, I learned from speaking with AeroFarms researchers that drone usage significantly reduces the need for the quantity and maintenance of cameras in large VF facilities.
#10: Agriculture is going through a rebrand of sorts – high-tech ways of producing food through CEA are attracting young and talented workers. In contrast with the rising ages and declining number of farmers globally, this is a glimmer of hope and shows the potential of technology-driven long-term resilience in the food system.
The AeroFarms opening and AgTech Innovation Summit showcased the immense potential of vertical farming technologies in addressing food (and nutrition!) security challenges in the UAE, highlighting the importance of diverse, industry-wide support with a focus on technology-driven agriculture to revitalize the local food systems. I am eager to see how this step forward will transform the sector, in the region and worldwide.