Kalera, one of the fastest growing vertical farming companies in the world, has joined as a member of the U.S.-Saudi Business Council.
The Council met Kalera, formerly known as Eco Convergence Group, in 2018 and highlighted their advanced indoor farming technology at the U.S.-Saudi SME Forum in Los Angeles in October 2018. Since then, Kalera has revolutionized the future of farming by lowering barriers to achieving food security and increasing efficiency of leafy plant production. The company has rapidly expanded in the U.S. and is planning to expand internationally, including in Saudi Arabia.
The Council is pleased to share its discussion with Daniel Malechuk, CEO of Kalera on the benefits of indoor farming and the company’s outlook on the future of farming.
Can you provide an overview of how Kalera’s vertical farming works?
Kalera is the technological leader in urban vertical hydroponics and one of the fastest growing vertical farming companies in the world. We utilize proprietary technology and plant and seed science to sustainably grow local, delicious, nutrient-rich, pesticide-free, non-GMO leafy greens year-round. Our high-yield, automated, data-driven hydroponic production facilities have been designed for rapid roll-out with attractive unit economics to grow leafy greens faster, cleaner and with less environmental impact than traditional farming. With our mission to serve humanity, wherever we are, with fresh, safe, sustainable and affordable nourishment, we aim to become a global leader in controlled-environment agriculture (“CEA”) for leafy greens addressing an expanding $30 billion total global market. Underpinning our innovative production process is our proprietary plant and seed science, clean room technology adapted from semiconductor and biomedical industries, and our IoT, big data and AI capabilities that we have perfected through over 12 years of research and development. Our technology allows us to optimize nutrient mixtures, light recipes, temperature, humidity, resulting in nutrient-dense greens with consistent high quality year-round. Our clean room technology includes advanced air and water filtration and decontamination. We also utilize cultivation methods that avoid contamination of hardware, seeds, and media. As a result, we are able to eliminate the use of pesticides from our production process and virtually eliminate all risk of exposure to human pathogens such as E-Coli.
How does Kalera compare with conventional farming?
Kalera builds and operates indoor vertical hydroponic farms, whereas traditional farming is done on open fields. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrients in water without soil. If a plant is given exactly what it needs, when it needs it, and in the amount that it needs, the plant should be as healthy as is genetically possible and can be grown in a very efficient way.
What is Vindara? How does Kalera’s acquisition of Vindara fit into the company’s strategy? What are the benefits of the vertical integration?
Vindara is the first company dedicated to developing seeds specifically designed for use in vertical indoor farm environments as well as other CEA farming methods. Vindara uses genomics, machine learning, and computational biology along with traditional breeding methods to meet the market need for produce that is non-GMO, nutritious, high-yielding, and delicious. Our acquisition of Vindara is expected to accelerate our product development both within our existing segment as well as in other lettuce and leafy greens varieties including high yield basil and spinach, and in entirely new categories such as strawberries. The acquisition of Vindara also gives us the option of generating value through the development of custom seed for the controlled environment agriculture at large, eliminating the limitations that traditional seeds have.
Where does Kalera currently operate?
We currently operate large scale vertical farms in Orlando and Atlanta, and we have six additional large-scale facilities under construction in Houston, Denver, Honolulu, Seattle, Columbus, and Saint Paul. At the same time Kalera aims to expand globally, and we expect to announce soon new projects in several key regions.
As Saudi Arabia looks to boost local food production in the Kingdom, what are the key advantages of your innovative approach to food production?
Saudi Arabia and other markets stand to benefit from Kalera’s indoor vertical hydroponics technology in the following ways:
- Our facilities produce several hundred times more output per square meter than traditional farming and we are not encumbered by growing seasons (i.e. our plants grow 365 days a year). Our high yields result from a combination of vertical layering and higher output per layer due to a highly controlled growing environment and optimization of plant nutrients, light schedules and spectrum, among other. When all these factors are combined, a Kalera production facility needs 99% less land per kilogram of output than a traditional farm.
- Our vertical indoor farms use much less water than traditional farms. With our closed-loop nutrient distribution system, any water unused by our plants or evaporated into the air remains within the system for recycling. This allows our facilities to consume approximately 95% less water than traditional farming methods.
- Our indoor vertical farms use clean room technology including advanced air and water filtration and decontamination. We also utilize cultivation methods that avoid contamination of hardware, seeds, and media. As a result, we are able to eliminate the use of pesticides from our production process. Furthermore, our approach virtually eliminates all risk of contamination with human pathogens such as E-Coli.
- With indoor production facilities strategically situated close to our target markets, we are able to significantly reduce the length of time and costs inherent in the conventional produce value chain, enabling our produce to be sold to the consumer within hours of harvest, as opposed to over two weeks that is typical of conventionally farmed products. This ensures that our produce retains superior quality and freshness. Important from a sustainability standpoint, our products have longer shelf life than traditional farmed products, and combined with earlier store arrival, this provides significant potential to reduce the cost and environmental damage generated from food waste.
- Through our advanced seed and plant science capabilities we are able to improve the nutritive value of our produce, for the benefit of the consumer. For example, we have perfected through a collaboration with the University of Florida a light recipe that results in red leaf lettuce with higher contents of anti-oxidants. Our products are excellent sources of several beneficial minerals such as potassium, calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium and are packed with vitamins A, C, and K, folates, phenols, and anti-oxidants.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. Can you explain how Kalera uses AI?
Kalera is part of the new revolution in agriculture, known as “SmartAg,” which is driven by data, sensors, analytics, and AI. Our production facilities are controlled by our own HyCubeOS, an advanced, Cloud-based automation system using IoT sensors. Essential plant growing variables (temperature, humidity, CO2 levels, lights, nutrients, maintenance events) are under strict control and monitored around the clock over the Internet. The HyCubeOS creates a data rich environment, which is really an AI platform for predictive analytics and complex data visualization. Vindara also uses big data analytics and AI for the accelerated development of plant varieties optimized not only for yield, but also targeting certain taste, color, shape and texture characteristics demanded by the market.
Late last year, Saudi Arabia announced it was earmarking $26.6 million for local vertical farming projects. Does Kalera see itself as part of the Kingdom’s development of this sector, and how could Kalera contribute to Saudi Arabia’s goal of preserving water and enhancing food security?
We are happy to see that Saudi Arabia has recognized that vertical farming can contribute to its food security, through its ability to grow fresh, safe, nutritious and pesticide-free produce locally year-round, in spaces protected from harsh climate, with unparalleled savings in water and land use. Kalera has recognized Saudi Arabia as a key potential market for deploying its advanced vertical farms. We believe that we can contribute to Saudi Arabia’s goal to achieve food supply security with a low environmental impact.