Fresh from the City

Can indoor-grown veg feed the rapidly growing urban population asks Belinda Clarke

You may have seen pictures of vertical farming – lettuces, under bright pink lights, their leaves dark purple, with a tag-line promising fresh local greens in a shop near you – and the promises are coming true.

Square Mile Farms is an example – the company recently opened its flagship farm in London, where it grows greens on the rooftop to deliver locally. Its higher aim is to integrate farming into the workplace by installing vertical growth stacks, allowing employees to pick their own veg.

But underneath the excitement of vertical farming, there is a much bigger question that technology developers and entrepreneurs are trying to solve: How are we going to keep feeding ourselves as the environment changes around us, whilst ensuring that food production remains profitable?

In addition, urbanisation – the rapid expansion of city populations – will see 70 per cent of humans on the planet living in cities, within a few decades. Agri-tech stands poised to improve the productivity of food systems to cope with the logistics of meeting this demand.

As a reflection of that, Vertical Farming – or ‘Controlled Environment Agriculture’ – is growing up.

Total Control
The way people get access to food probably needs to change in ways we can’t currently imagine. As expert Dr Luuk Graamans of Wageningen University says, control is going to be the key if we are to create safe, clean, high-yielding food production facilities. He sees the solution as 21self-contained, automated farms, with no human presence inside the farm itself. Because if you take the human component away, you massively lower the chance of contaminating the crop with pests and diseases, creating the potential to grow amazingly fresh produce; free of pesticides, preservatives and lubricants.

Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) is a tech development company that is making this a reality. The CEO says it is selling equipment that can replicate any climate in any month of the year by bringing irrigation, light and ventilation (especially humidity) under full control.

The great thing about the Agri-TechE membership, is that it brings together organisations that are tackling these problems from different directions. For example, one of our members is LettUs Grow, which has developed a system that enables remote management system of automated indoor agriculture process. Whilst another member, Cambridge Consultants, is looking at the use of soft robotics for automating the harvesting of delicate fruits. So developers are really making progress toward that goal of total control.

Perfect peppers
As the technology evolves, the market is changing too – it’s not just lettuces and basil, there is a much wider range of produce. According to the CEO of IGS, the company is producing varieties of field vegetables such as micro-turnips and radishes as well as a range of chillies, in response to demand from Asian markets.

So the ability to control the environment allows farmers to produce these high value products, of consistent quality, any time of the year. But critically they can also produce them locally, even in areas of scarce resource. There is evidence that the drive to scale the technology is coming from overseas – including the Middle East, Singapore and the USA. In regions where water conservation is paramount and solar energy is plentiful, indoor growing of staple crops, such as wheat and ukrice, may even become economically viable.

Scale up or go local?
The opportunity to radically rethink food production systems is another of the drivers for Vertical Farming and a variety of business models are being developed here.

There are those that believe the future is in scale, and are creating large production units close to logistics sites to enable ‘growing to order’ and rapid delivery. Others are looking more at the ‘dig for victory’ model, involving city dwellers in the production of their own food or growing underground in urban environments.

Traditional agricultural practises are still going to provide the majority of what we eat over the coming decades, but there’s a new niche developing. By enabling more precise management of food-supply, farming in controlled environments can reduce waste in the system. The challenges for vertical farmers are still there but the innovation in this sector is creating exciting possibilities and I firmly believe that only through collaboration will we secure the future of food in this country.

Belinda Clarke is the Director of Agri-TechE, which brings together organisations and individuals that share a passion for improving the productivity, profitability and sustainability of agriculture.