Hydroponic vertical farming brings fresh produce to non-arable regions
The Smart Acres farm consists of eight shipping containers equipped with modules that use internet of things technology to monitor for humidity, temperature, and the nutrients inside the plants. It’s all in the name of creating an environment that’s optimized for plant growth and high nutritional value. “When we come in, we have air showers built into our facilities. We make sure that our controlled environment is as sterile as possible to protect the plants from external factors,” says Phongsavanh.
Having fine-tuned the process for leafy greens, the team is preparing to expand its crop. First up: strawberries, a local favorite. “There’s no leading vertical farm in the UAE right now that is commercializing strawberries. So, in fact, we would love to be the first one to test it and get it right,” says Phongsavanh.
This episode of Business Lab is produced in association with the UAE Pavilion Expo 2020 Dubai.
Laurel Ruma: From MIT Technology Review, I’m Laurel Ruma. And this is Business Lab, the show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace.
Our topic today is hydroponic vertical farming as a possible solution to food availability challenges in areas like the United Arab Emirates, where the region has little arable land, scarce water for irrigation and far more people than it can feed through its own production. Traditional farming simply isn’t viable. Fortunately, science and technology are finding a way.
Two words for you, food security.
My guest today is Aphisith Phongsavanh, lead project manager of Smart Acres. Smart Acres is an indoor vertical hydroponic farm that grows pesticide-free leafy greens using 1/10th of the land and 90% less water than traditional farming.
This podcast is produced in association with the UAE Pavilion Expo 2020 Dubai.
Aphisith: Thanks for having me.
Laurel: In the United Arab Emirates, Smart Acres is one of the leaders in vertical farming. Where is the company right now in its development stage?
Aphisith: After being operational throughout our POC stage for the last three years, we’ve now moved on and integrated a newer version of our growth module, version 2.0. We’ve basically taken into consideration the challenges that we’ve faced with the first model, and we’ve gone ahead and made sure that our newer module is ready to go with better circulation systems, better regulation of humidity and AC, enabled modulation of light intensities during different stages of growth. And in total, all of these changes just resulted in better energy efficiency.
Laurel: So Aphisith, if I were to walk in on your vertical farm today, what would I see, actually? It’s a shipping container?
Aphisith: Sure. So right now, we have eight shipping containers placed in such a way that they’re interconnected for efficiency. You would walk in, they’re all horizontal, by the way, none of them are standing up. You would walk into the entrance container where you would be required to remove your shoes and external clothing such as jackets and sweaters. You’d put on PPE, wash your hands, put on sanitized boots as well, and then walk through a closed air shower. And then you would make your way into the work module and to the right of the work module, we have four growth containers. And then right beside the fourth one, we have a germination module that’s used for germinating our seeds for transplantation into the growth modules. The last module is a packing and a storage facility.
Laurel: Countries like the United Arab Emirates where traditional farming is next to impossible are food dependent. What does that mean, and how does that affect the quality and availability of fresh produce?
Aphisith: Living in a region with a lot of non-arable land and in arid conditions, we’re not able to produce a lot of the crops needed for consumption for the nation. The UAE actually imports 90% of the food for consumption. That’s one factor that we take into consideration when it comes to being food insecure.
Being food insecure, we import a lot of crops from around the world, and that impacts the quality and availability because let’s say, for instance, during the pandemic or even global crises, if you were to have logistical challenges with transport, you’re going to have disruptions in the supply chain. Second of all, the quality. When you have crops being flow in, you’re going to have a great reduction of nutrient value when it comes to healthy foods.
Laurel: Although there are several reasons for poor food production in the UAE, the scarcity of water contributes heavily. Most of the water in the country is recycled and reused, but this process itself can only happen so many times. How does vertical farming address this challenge?
Aphisith: In essence, traditional farming uses a lot of the world’s water for agricultural purposes. A lot of the water is wasted via poor irrigation, evaporation, and just water mismanagement. What vertical farming looks to address is proper efficient use of the water — up to 95% less water than traditional farming methods.
Laurel: Well, looking at the photographs that Smart Acres had posted on social media, I was struck by how green and vibrant the produce is. The heads of lettuce and kale are just beautiful. But one thing that is surprising to see is that your farmers are wearing lab coats, so this looks a lot more like science than traditional farming. Is that a correct assessment?
Aphisith: That’s a really funny observation. Yes, a lot of people do actually make the same observation, and there is a lot of science in what we do, but the main purpose for our PPE, our personal protective equipment, is actually for the crops themselves. When we come in, we have air showers built into our facilities. We make sure that our controlled environment is as sterile as possible to protect the plants from external factors. For an example, even exhalation with our team members. There’s a lot of CO2 that is exhaled and in order for us to keep our environment as consistent and controlled as possible, even the CO2 in the air must be controlled and kept at a consistent rate. These are the reasons why we do wear personal protective equipment, not just for our sake, but mainly for the plants’ sake. Because we do not use any pesticides, we want to make sure that our crops are as healthy as possible for consumption.
Laurel: And keeping the growing in such a contained environment. It sounds like one, it’s good for the plants because they are in a very specific environment that allows for rapid growth and the most nutrient growth. But are there other reasons? What would happen if a pest was somehow accidentally introduced to one of these vertical farms?
Aphisith: When you say a pest, what kind of pest are you referring to? Are you referring to the critter kind?
Aphisith: That’s an interesting question. We haven’t faced that challenge as of yet, but in terms of protocols, we’d definitely have to sweep the entire system front and back, inside and out with a full-scale disinfection program. But, as I mentioned before, we make sure that all of our team members wear PPE. They wash their hands probably more than 10, 20 times a shift, upon requirements, and there’s an air shower as well at the entrance. So, we try to minimize any external pests that do come in but, as mentioned, if we do happen to find one in the near future, there would be a 100% lockdown and a disinfection.
Laurel: Smart Acres uses this type of state-of-the-art technology to maintain the optimal conditions for growth and nourishment as we said, but you also have in-house growing modules and an internet of things based technology system to help these modules. Could you tell us more about how these technologies ensure high quality crops?
Aphisith: Sure. To begin with our modules, they’re fitted freight containers with individual complete HVAC systems within each module. And we house around 1,920 pots per unit. Part two, our system is a proprietary cloud-based system, and we implement live data monitoring systems via mobile apps. We can control the specific parameters and set targets, and overall, the system is capable of self-adjusting. And what I mean by self-adjusting, there are five main conditions that we control: light, humidity, circulation, nutrients, and temperature. Now, all of those play a big factor in the cultivation of our crops. We try to keep our environment as consistent as possible. So as mentioned before, when it comes to lighting, for example, we found that our first module didn’t modulate the light intensities properly and there was a mismanagement of energy resources. So, we found that near the end of the cultivation, the growth stage, there was a requirement for a higher light intensity so now with our module version two, we’re able to control the intensity.
Same thing with humidity and circulation. We found that living in such a harsh environment within the UAE, humidity was a big, big problem. We managed to create a new system that balanced out the humidity levels with proper air circulation, which helps our plants grow healthier and more efficient. Because if there is high humidity, for example, there isn’t enough plant transpiration, and without proper plant transpiration, you’re not going to get the nutrients being pulled up from the root, through the stem all the way through the leaves. And then you’re going to end up with a variety of problems such as tip burns. So, with all these changes, you end up with better quality plants.
Laurel: What kind of difference are we talking about in nutritional value between a head of lettuce that’s farmed traditionally versus one at Smart Acres? And why is this so important?
Aphisith: We haven’t actually completed our nutritional analysis yet. We are planning to because we just switched to version 2.0 of our module. But when looking at a traditionally farmed head of lettuce versus a vertically farmed head of lettuce at Smart Acres, you can just instinctively tell right off the bat, in terms of nutritional value, because when crops are transported and flown in from halfway across the world, they lose a lot of their nutrient content already during transportation.
When we’re growing our vertically farmed lettuce, you’re getting crops that are locally grown and there’s less time for transportation, which means you have a higher yield of nutrients in your crops. Also, with our vertically farmed lettuce at Smart Acres, we’re able to control the nutrient fertilizers. For example, when you’re farming your crops traditionally, you can spray your fertilizers, but then due to other external factors such as wind and poor irrigation, you’re going to have a lot of the fertilizer that is not properly utilized within the crop. Since we have a controlled environment and we have no soil and the roots are submerged in the water, you’re guaranteed a higher nutritional value, 100%. But, as I mentioned, we haven’t gotten around to testing and analyzing the exact numbers yet, but we will get to that.
Laurel: I’m sure there’s quite a difference. I’m imagining a freight airplane full of boxes of just perishable lettuce and poor temperature control, and everything you have to think of.
Aphisith: That’s a valid point because during transportation, it depends on the logistics company with their cold chain. And if systems go awry, then you’re going to have a lot of inventory that is not nutritionally sound, for sure.
Laurel: The idea is to expand to meet popular demand for exciting produce, not that lettuce isn’t exciting, but things like strawberries and potatoes. How does local appetites kind of influence what you grow? Or is there a scientific reason that we’re starting first with lettuces and kales?
Aphisith: Exciting reasons for the non-cool crops? Well, to begin with, vertical farming in terms of agri-tech is a novel concept and yes, it’s buzzworthy right now. But what I mean by novel, I mean the technology to make sure that you have a product that is accessible and available and affordable. It’s just not there yet because the barrier to entry is so high when it comes to high-tech vertical farming. And so, it’s easier and less of a challenge to start off with experimenting and doing R&D with leafy green vegetables, as opposed to doing high-value crops such as strawberries or staple foods such as potato seeds. So that is the first reason. We chose strawberries because yes, they are a high-value crop and a lot of people in the UAE, regardless of if they’re a local Emirati or expats, do love strawberries. So, we decided to move on with strawberries after leafy greens.
It’s not necessarily a scientific reason. There is no scientific reason for strawberries. It’s more of a business case than it is a scientific reason. In retrospect, I guess you could sort of say there is a slight scientific reason because there is no leading vertical farm in the UAE right now that is commercializing strawberries. So, in fact, we would love to be the first one to test it and get it right, so that is the science behind it I guess you could say.
When it comes to the potato seed, it’s not a scientific reason, more of a socioeconomic reason. A lot of the countries in the MENA region, Middle East, North Africa, get their potato seeds and their potatoes imported from around the globe, such as Europe and North America. We would really like to reduce and curb that dependence on that system, so if we were to grow the Middle East potato seed, it would do wonders for the local ecosystem in terms of Middle East and North Africa.
Laurel: It means such a staple food for so many different meals and available to so many different types of people who can use it around the world, certainly makes a big difference.
Aphisith: For sure. 100%. A big, big difference. I believe the potato was the third main staple crop in the world actually, behind wheat and rice. Yeah. That’s the figure.
Laurel:I was just thinking that.
Aphisith: Yeah, it’s really huge. There’s a huge market for it. But once again, it’s a socioeconomic thing for our vision with the potato seed to ensure that our neighboring countries in the MENA region can depend less on international imports and we can work within a local ecosystem.
Laurel: The future expansion plans of the company is to develop the Smart Acres Institute of Food Security and Agriculture. Talking a bit about what you said, so it’s sort of a localized food security program. This institute will be built on a plot of land owned by Smart Acres’ CEO Abdulla Al Kaabi.
Laurel: What is the vision of this institute and what does it mean to invest locally? This is a reoccurring theme on a number of topics we’ve discussed today, but investing locally, growing locally, and consuming locally is certainly important for the United Arab Emirates.
Aphisith: Sure. So being as Abdulla Al Kaabi himself, our CEO, is a local Emirati, we wholeheartedly believe in investing locally. Not just because of that main fact, but because the UAE government itself, they have a mandate — the Food Security Strategy 2051. And we very much would love to participate and help as much as we can to make sure that the UAE reaches their target. When it comes to the Institute, our long-term goal is actually to be a pioneer within the region to facilitate the research and development of plant propagation. We’d really love to look into growing new crops and plants that can be grown efficiently within this harsh environment.
Let’s say for example, right now there are farms that grow melons, that grow cucumber. However, they’re using seeds from international companies that aren’t necessarily, I would say, advantageous in terms of being grown within these harsh environments. So yes, you can grow these certain crops, but how about your yield? How is your yield at the end of harvest? What about disease and pests? Are they prone to such factors? So, our long-term goal with the institute is to focus on plant propagation. And in the short term, the first crop that we wanted to experiment with is, once again, cultivating the UAE potato seed for the MENA region.
Laurel: You’re a trained chef and you have experience in award winning restaurants all over the world, so you must have a pretty unique view of this project. How do you bring your love of food and culinary expertise to this project? And what does it mean for you to be part of it where you can really help bring high quality produce to every table?
Aphisith: That’s a very layered question, and it’s a personal one, and I’ll tell you the honest truth. Because I am a chef, I feel more connected to the business philosophy in terms of food security and food sustainability, because chefs and even home cooks, you’re in tune with the ingredients. You’re touching the produce. It’s who you are. It’s who I am. Without proper ingredients, we cannot do what we are made to do. My experience as a chef gives me a different perspective when it comes to Smart Acres because I don’t just try to think of it wholly 100% from a business perspective, but I also think of it from a consumer social responsibility perspective as well, to make sure that we are doing the right thing for future generations.
To have these different perspectives and my philosophies coming together into one project, it’s very profound for me, to be honest, because even with the food wastage as a chef, we try to minimize food waste in the kitchen, and I took that philosophy with me to the company. For instance, I found ways to upcycle our wastage on the farm so that we can put it right back into the ecosystem and get value from it, as opposed to just throwing it out and having the food waste and throwing your money away.
When I say upcycling, for example, I mean taking lettuce that would otherwise be thrown out and turning it into sauces, right? Turning kale into kale chips. Turning leafy greens into crispy kimchi. There are so many ways that you can utilize the waste. And what I mean by waste, I don’t mean waste that’s spoiled, but I mean waste in terms of not meeting quality standards. Let’s say for instance, we would have a cutoff of, let’s say, one or two percent tip burn. If there is a harvest that doesn’t meet that, then it doesn’t get the passing grade, and then we can utilize that harvest for being upcycled into products for the market.
Laurel: And tip burn for folks is like, you look at a lettuce leaf and you can see browning around the edges, which makes it go bad quicker and also not maybe as beautiful when you’re trying to sell it at a market.
Aphisith: Correct. That’s what I mean by tip burn. I’ve had plenty of talks and discussions with the team here regarding imperfect plants and imperfect crops and vegetables. Some governments around the world, such as France, are implementing policies for the retail sector in terms of loving imperfect produce. I believe that is something that the global community should take into more consideration. The UAE is doing a great job because there are a few campaigns right now being pushed through the grassroots level and slowly up into the commercial sector in regards to appreciating imperfect crops and vegetables and plants and so forth. Just because something doesn’t look perfect, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste perfect. I always ask people, “Would you rather eat a tomato that doesn’t necessarily look nice but tastes absolutely fantastic, firm, sweet, vibrant, or eat a tomato that looks sublime, divine, but tastes like water?” And 10 out of 10 people always say, I would rather go for the imperfect tomato that tastes amazing.
Laurel: Absolutely. Aphisith, thank you so much for joining us today on the Business Lab.
Aphisith: You’re very welcome. It was great to be part of this. Thank you.
Laurel: That was Aphisith Phongsavanh, lead project manager of Smart Acres, who I spoke with from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of MIT and MIT Technology Review, overlooking the Charles River.
That’s it for this episode of Business Lab, I’m your host, Laurel Ruma. I’m the director of Insights, the custom publishing division of MIT Technology Review. We were founded in 1899 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And you can find us in print, on the web, and at events each year around the world. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at technologyreview.com.
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