Vertical Farming: things are looking up
£12.5 million in funding was recently pledged by the UK Government to advance ‘high-tech farming’. But what does that look like?
One innovation we can expect to see more of is vertical farming.
Vertical farming takes the controlled environment of the modern commercial greenhouse and scales it to another level. Crops are grown indoors in vertically stacked layers to maximize the use of space. LED lights replace sunlight, pesticides are unnecessary, and water is recycled. In theory a vertical farm can be established anywhere – urban or rural, above or below ground – which helps to resolve the high demand for farmland.
All environmental conditions can be controlled, from temperature to carbon dioxide levels. This allows farmers to achieve optimal growing conditions, driving increased efficiency, precision and yield.
Current implications on the agri-food sector
Vertical Farming can assist countries in meeting their climate objectives. Because the technique involves a self-contained facility, inputs and outputs are closely monitored. This reduces carbon emissions and prevents pollution of ground water. With less land being dedicated to agricultural production, more remains to foster biodiversity. One of the most common soilless growth techniques implemented in vertical farming is a hydroponic system – where plant roots are submerged in a nutrient solution. Barclays estimates that this uses 70% less water than a conventional farm.
Producing foods in the UK closer to consumers also dramatically shortens the supply chain. This reduces the negative impact of transporting food production on the environment and climate. One leader in the sector said that vertical farming has the ‘real potential to transform the global food supply chain [and] bolster local economies.’
The energy requirements to operate such an intensive facility can be significant. In the current energy climate, this meaning that it’s only financially viable to produce small crops with large profit margins – such as salad leaves and strawberries. However, the acceleration towards renewable energy should reduce energy costs, and associated emissions, dramatically improving the financial and environmental sustainability of these farms.
Inevitably the start-up costs involved in constructing a vertical farm remain prohibitive to many producers. Thus, the UK government’s recent announcement of funding for agri-innovation is a welcome measure to ease this financial burden.
Countries can invest in vertical farming in the pursuit of national food security. Crucially, it offers potential for efficient, high-yield, year-round production in optimally controlled conditions. In the UK, this could reduce dependence on food imports, bolstering the resilience of the UK food system. There has been increased focus on this, following the supply-chain disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Irregular growing seasons caused by climate change will also make vertical farming a more attractive option, improving the self-sufficiency and resilience of the UK.
One UK food company already aspires to eliminate imports of soft fruit, herbs and salad by 2032. Central to this goal is the construction of a ‘skyscraper’ vertical farm which will be the largest structure of its kind in the world. The innovative method of production is also spreading in the USA where over 2,000 such farms currently exist.
Following the announcement of £12.5 million in funding to boost high-tech farming, by the UK’s Department of Food and Agriculture (Defra), Environment Secretary Ranil Jayawardena announced extra funding for the Farming Innovation Programme (FIP). This will be available to support research and development projects that lead to greater automation and the use of robotics through the horticultural sector. This support highlights the government’s commitment to creating a more sustainable agri-food sector.
This aligns with the government’s broader aspiration for a cutting-edge economy fuelled by technological innovation. When speaking in the Commons earlier this year, the newly appointed Farming Minister Mark Spencer championed the dividends and benefits of Brexit. Decoupled from the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy, the British government wants to shift the incentive from how much output farmers are producing to how they are producing that output. Vertical farming fits in with this as a method of production which yields large amounts of food with minimal environmental impact.
Food security formed the backbone of the government’s vision for a sustainable food system driven by innovation. The government’s first ever food strategy was published in June 2022. We anticipate that current and future governments to encourage investment in emerging technologies like vertical farming.
The FIP opens in January and will match-fund projects that drive economic growth, and food security, and deliver on environmental commitments. Previous projects that have been supported by the program included fruit-scouting robots, automated vegetable harvesters, and new types of fertiliser.
The Environment Secretary Ranil Jayawardena said: ‘Technology offers huge opportunities to make farming greener and more productive, so we should harness it to help grow the economy, create jobs and improve food security too.’
In addition, the Environment Secretary recently visited the Netherlands to learn more about high-tech greenhouse and vertical farming approaches, touring a robotics institute and a glasshouse business that uses artificial intelligence, robotics, renewable energy, and water-neutral systems to grow produce. This trip indicates a clear interest, at the highest levels, in vertical farming and innovation within the agrifood sector that can be transferred to the UK.
Despite their aforementioned start-up costs, many believe that – in the face of global food shortages, supply chain problems and climate change – vertical farming is the ‘future’ of farming. Further advances and innovation within vertical farming are expected.
In summary, vertical farming is an increasingly prominent part of the UK Government’s food security and climate policy, backed by real investment. The dual focus on growth and sustainability is sure to attract the attention of current – and future governments. And this will only increase as the sector embraces future innovation, and cheaper, greener energy.
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