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PHOTO: Sean Lee, director of Smart Acres hydroponics farm.

Fresh greens from a new vertical farm in Abu Dhabi city will go on sale for the first time in September. The vegetables are grown under LED lights inside eight converted shipping containers using hydroponics – where crops are grown with nutrient-rich water instead of soil.

Smart Acres, the company behind the venture, initially planned to sell to hotels and restaurants but the Covid-19 pandemic had them shift to individuals. Smart Acres started preliminary operations in March and has donated produce since then to help the sector. Now it is ready to enter the commercial market.

Lettuce is a popular first crop in hydroponics because it grows quickly – in about 30 days from seed to crop. Since March, Smart Acres have increased the average size of a head from 120 to 200 grams. Strawberries, rocket and potato seeds will be grown next.

Food security has been highlighted as a national priority in the post-coronavirus age. The UAE imports between 80 to 90 percent of its food. But the cost of growing produce in the extreme desert is exceptionally high and some farmers have given up multi-generational farms.

Entrepreneurs have turned to vertical farming with hydroponics as resource-efficient way to bolster food security. Smart Acres uses just 10 percent of the water of a conventional farm without the need for any pesticides. They are not the first to explore urban farming.

In 2018, Emirates announced it would build a Dh147m vertical farming factory near Dubai airport to produce greens for passengers, Dubai’s Sustainable City set up a hydroponic farm in shipping contains in August 2019 and Madar Farms announced it would grown a tonne of tomatoes a day at a 7,000 sq m facility by 2021.   Smart Acres grew from a food distributing company but urban farming is the future.CREDIT: Victor Besa / The National.