Most Influential Projects 2022

22 Emirates Crop One

Infrastructure | Middle East & North Africa
Emirates Crop One

For planting the seeds of sustainable food production in the UAE and beyond

Limited arable land and an acute water shortage force the United Arab Emirates to import nearly 90 percent of the food needed to feed its 9.8 million residents. Looking to increase long-term food security and slash the carbon footprint that’s part and parcel of all those imports, U.S. agtech startup Crop One Holdings and Emirates Flight Catering teamed up to create the world’s largest vertical farm. 

For the UAE, the project could mark an important step forward in reaching its National Food Security Strategy 2051 to create reliable year-round crop production as well as its UAE Water Security Strategy 2036 agenda. In a sign of the project’s strategic value, the site drew a visit from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, VP, Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai. “The UAE will continue to make the right investments in technologies and people to make food production and supply more agile and sustainable,” he said during his tour.

Impressive enough, but the team has an even bigger vision: Create a template for transforming food production across the world. “It’s our mission to cultivate a sustainable future to meet global demand for fresh, local food, and this first large-format farm is the manifestation of that commitment,” says Craig Ratajczyk, CEO of Crop One. 

The US$40 million Emirates Crop One, or ECO 1, uses an AI-powered closed-loop water recycling system expected to deliver as much as 2 million pounds (907,185 kilograms) of fresh produce annually—and do so with 95 percent less water than field-grown fruits and veggies. Proprietary hydroponic infrastructure helps maximize usable space and crop yields, minus any pesticides or agricultural chemicals. And to make sure it all goes to plan, the team developed a tech-fueled operating system that manages the facility’s water treatment, as well as environmental, nutritional and lighting components. The result? The site’s more than 1 million plants are supported by millions of data points collected each day for maximum growth and supplied with the exact amount of light, water and nutrients, sans soil.

After joining forces in 2018, the team mobilized contractors to build the 330,000-square-foot (30,658-square-meter) warehouse-like facility in Dubai, which was completed in July. The facility currently grows kale, lettuce, spinach and arugula, which is now available for purchase at stores in the UAE under the Bustanica brand name and is also used for passenger meals on airlines, including Emirates, the airline that owns 90 percent of the catering company behind the project. 

“No one in the world has designed or built a farm of this scale,” says Steve Hebda, Crop One’s VP of farm development. “Advocating for the science behind our approach, in this large-scale food production facility, was well worth the effort.”