Farm-to-table has long been touted as a more sustainable way to dine, but now garden-to-plane is taking off thanks to a collaboration between Singapore Airlines and AeroFarms, which uses futuristic indoor vertical planting to grow salad. Emily Eastman reports
From pak choi to rocket, AeroFarms grows “aeroponic” salad in vertically stacked trays in a massive warehouse just a few miles from Newark Liberty International airport. And thanks to a new partnership from Singapore Airlines, passengers flying from New York to Singapore (the carrier’s longest route at 19 hours) will get to eat it in the air.
The greens produced by AeroFarms, which is the world’s biggest vertical farm (the plot of land it sits on measure 3.5 acres) make it into Singapore Airlines’ dishes within hours. Once packaged, they are transported to the Flying Food Group caterer, which supplies the flight (in this case, there are only business class and premium economy passengers on board).
At the moment, the Singapore Airlines business class menu features dishes such as “Garden Green” with baby ruby streaks and watercress, and “Heirloom Tomato Ceviche” with rocket. (AeroFarms produce will be rolled out to premium economy next year, hopefully.)
The plants are grown using no soil or sunlight, meaning there are no weeds, and crops can grow year-round – regardless of the season. And for the airline, they have been designed to taste “bolder and spicier” to appeal to the palates of people in the air (our taste buds are impaired at altitude).In 2019, AeroFarms was named by Fast Company as one of the most innovative companies of the year. It said: “[AeroFarms] grew more than 100 million plants in the first half of 2018, and because of its controlled environment, it generates a surfeit of data about them: billions of data points that then inform optimal growing and quality.
“Using innovations in data science and plant biology such as computer vision and machine learning, AeroFarms has increased its number of crop cycles annually by 14 per cent, which is 769 per cent greater than field farming.
“These efforts have also informed its mission to build and optimise environmentally responsible, indoor vertical farms to grow the most nutrient-dense and delicious local leafy greens.”How does it work exactly? AeroFarms grows plants in a fully controlled indoor environment – aeroponics technology sends a mist of nutrients, water and oxygen to the roots that uses 95 per cent less water than field farming.
Meanwhile, LED lights enable AeroFarms to control the size, shape, texture, colour, flavour and even nutritional content of the vegetation. The process also means seeds grow twice as fast as they would in a commercial field farm (instead of putting them in soil, they are placed on a cloth made from recycled plastic bottles). No pesticides, herbicides or fungicides are used.
Apparently, this method can be used to grow 700 varieties of plants, fruits, vegetables that are ready for harvesting in as little as 12 to 14 days, compared with 30 to 45 days at an outdoor farm.Why is Singapore Airlines partnering with AeroFarms? Sustainability. James Boyd, Singapore Airlines’ head of US communications, told Business Insider that normally, while catering in the winter, “the greens or our flights from Newark had to be flown in from 3,000 miles away, from California, Mexico, or Florida… [AeroFarms] allows us to instead source our greens from less than five miles away, cutting down on shipping waste.”
Meanwhile, Antony McNeil, Singapore Airlines’ food and beverage director, told CNN Travel: “We wanted to be more sustainable and reduce our carbon footprint by using hyper-local produce, and we wanted the in-flight food to taste as vibrant as possible. We’re always trying to innovate when it comes to on-board dining so AeroFarms was a great fit.”
The garden-to-plane concept is part of a series of wellness initiatives from Singapore Airlines, which includes the launch of a health-focused in-flight menu in partnership with wellness retreat Como Shambhala. Dishes include: spiced buckwheat and pumpkin pancakes; puy lentil, courgette and ricotta lasagne, and red rice and fish porridge.
The move is part of a global trend towards healthy, sustainable cuisine in the sky. With an eye to the future, Singapore Airlines says that if its AeroFarms collaboration is successful, the long-term goal will be to partner with more farms in its other major US markets.
“Our goal is to give our passengers the option of enjoying the freshest produce in the skies, grown and delivered in a more environmentally sustainable way,” Boyd told CNN.