Vertical farming presents a cheaper, more environmentally friendly future for agricultural suppliers. The forecasted global growth potential of this technology was presented at the virtually held Food Matters Live 2021 in a webinar entitled “Growing up: the rise of vertical farming.”
Speaking at the event is Jamie Burrows, founder and CEO of Vertical Future, a London-based technology company specialized in controlled-environment-agriculture (CEA).
Because this sector predominantly comprises early adopters, there is still a greater focus on higher margin premium vertical products.
To shift this direction, Vertical Future operates with a long-term goal of expanding sustainable large scale vertical farms that can compete with cheap foreign imports in terms of price and quality.
“For us, it’s about growing more food closer to points of consumption,” Burrows remarks. “If you look at changes in population distribution, more people are moving into urban centers, so it’s obvious that the population is growing globally.”
Overall, Vertical Future has scaled up activities across three continents, an R&D pipeline with numerous international collaborators, and a consumer-facing urban vertical farming brand, MiniCrops, in London, UK.
Vertical goes global
Many of the largest supermarkets are beginning to recognize the vertical farming opportunity.
“We’re going to start to see more and more integration distribution hubs or very close to distribution hubs, and these will of course go directly into points of sale at supermarkets,” says Burrows.
He highlights that there are key differences for vertical farming globally in different locations around the world.
“A lot of it is driven by outdoor conditions, the amount of available arable land and the amount that’s being imported by the country in terms of fresh produce,” Burrows notes.
“So, different models will emerge in different geographies depending on those, those three factors. Among island economies, very cold regions and very hot regions, we’re going to see a lot of activity. In countries like the UK with a more moderate climate, you’ll see different types of models but nowhere near as much capital investment going in,” he explains.
Regional uptake of vertical farming
In the Middle East, Burrows notes there has been a tendency to scale the industry “very quickly” and without necessarily looking at the commercial viability of the underlying technologies.
“Consumers want to grow up fast and get to market quickly and establish their position,” he comments. “But the concern there is that you know there could be some failures because the right types of technologies haven’t been chosen.”
Vertical Future assists agri-food businesses seeking to scale-up their vertical farming practices. Among its offered services, the company aids short-term research project to test the viability of a particular crop under different growing conditions, through to controlled plant production for use in clinical trials.
“We design, build and license high-tech hardware and software solutions in the vertical farming space,” details Burrows.
“We sell these anywhere from the UK through to Singapore, the Caribbean and a lot of other areas across the world where there is a high propensity to import sustainable food solutions.”
Scaling up a vertical future
One of the primary benefits of vertical farming is that it helps facilitate more effective crop germination, improving the overall growth profile. In addition, it can completely eliminate any contaminants coming into the farm.
“One study that we conducted recently found that 11 of 12 seeds that came into the farm had dangerous pathogens on them,” Burrows highlights.
Automated agricultural practices have historically raised questions of whether these will negatively impact human employment.
“The answer to that is no, because what we’re doing is getting rid of the very low skilled jobs, replacing them with machines,” Burrows comments.
“[We also provide] up skilled jobs for people that don’t require a university degree. You can come out of school and be trained how to work on a vertical farm. So it’s about upskilling, not displacing.”
“We don’t want humans going into the growing environment, because if you put humans in the green environment, you increase the probability of bringing pathogens in.”
Limits to vertical farming
Vertical farming has applications in farming most leafy greens, such as full head lettuces, and some fruits. Even so, Burrows goes on to explain that there are natural limits on what can be grown in vertical farms.
Burrows also concedes that more data is still needed in the fledgeling sector. “Like blockchain, we’re very focused on data. [Vertical farming is] not a very data rich sector, because it’s very nascent. And yet, this rapidly growing sector needs a lot of data.”
“Our ambition is to effectively build a data network across the world, linking farms and effectively effectively delivering mutual benefit and value in order to improve yields and improve health.”
In previous research from the John Innes Centre, the University of Bristol and the aeroponic technology provider LettUs Grow, vertical farms were found to effectively raise product consistency, price stabilization and cultivation at geographic latitudes incompatible with certain crops, such as desert or arctic geographies.
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