MB Insights: Vertical Farming – Is the only way up? 

Posted on 23 August 2022

When it comes to land, it’s essential for us to live, build, cultivate on… and farm on. Therefore, it goes without saying that we need as much of it as possible, now more than ever.

As our population continues to rapidly expand, the balance between these three is in a constant state of flux, with the amount of land available to us in rapid decline. Over the last decade, many have attempted to find an innovative and most importantly, sustainable, answer to the problem, with one promising idea blowing UP in the food industry.

MacGregor Black looks closer at the agriculture industry and it’s latest advancement, vertical farming.

So, what is Vertical Farming?

In simple terms, it’s making the most of the space above us. A slightly more intricate definition would be that vertical farming is the process of growing plants and food indoors on vertically stacked layers. Using the latest technologies known as controlled environment agriculture (CEA), farmers are now able to maintain almost total control over the environment in which their fruit and vegetables are grown. Critically, at varying heights. With CEA, farmers can curve the risks of unpredictable weather, as well as easily control the lighting, temperature, and water levels inside their vertical farms. This intensive form of farming utilises aeroponics, hydroponics, aquaponics, as well as a range of renewable energy sources and waste reduction strategies, all to ensure the cultivation process is as environmentally clean as possible. The term itself was first coined back in 1915 by American Geologist, Gilbert Ellis Bailey, but wasn’t popularised until 1999 when Columbia University professor, Dickson Despommier, and his students, designed a vertical farm that could feed up to 50,000 people. Fast forward to today, where land degradation is one of our greatest agricultural risks, vertical farming is now being hailed as a potential sustainable alternative to the way we currently grow and produce food worldwide. 

Planting the Seeds

Like all things in life, vertical farming has its own pros and cons. 

One of the obvious pros is the reduced need of precious natural resources, such as land and water. To put our current situation into context, a recent report by Greenpeace International found that almost 50 million hectares of forest lands were cleared for agriculture production in the last decade, totalling an area the size of Spain. Therefore, it’s no surprise we’re seeing a growing interest in alternative practices like vertical farming. Another sizeable add to the pro vertical farming list is the ability to locate farms much closer to, or even within, cities and urban areas. Locating farms close to urban areas means we see a cascade of secondary benefits such as, the ability for produce to reach customers within hours of being harvested. This not only saves on land space, but also retains the nutritional value of the product for much longer and drastically reduces the carbon footprint associated with transporting the product to the consumer. Traditional agriculture also currently accounts for 70% of freshwater withdrawals worldwide; a volume in which some vertical farms have successfully reduced by up to a staggering 95%, via the use of sustainable water recycling systems.

Another benefit to growing upwards is the reduced chance of food contamination. Across the pond, the Centre for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 6 people in the USA suffer from foodborne illness, with nearly half found to be a direct result of fresh produce. Bacterial infection has also been closely linked to some of our favourite leafy greens such as, lettuce, spinach, and herbs. As vertical farming is primarily located indoors, under controlled temperatures, and with the use of floor cleaners, water quality sensors and dosing systems, the likelihood of food being contaminated during the harvesting and post-harvesting process is significantly reduced. 

Finally, unpredictable global weather conditions and limited growing seasons currently dictate the diversity and availability of certain fruit and vegetables throughout the calendar year. Now with vertical farms, typically seasonal fruits, and vegetables such as strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants, and lettuce can be readily available during the colder months, allowing for a higher quality and range of fruit as well as a reduced dependency on expensive and environmentally unfriendly importation across borders.  

With a lengthy list of positives, you’d be forgiven for finding yourself wondering why there aren’t vertical farms springing up in your neighborhood. Although there are many advantages, there are also disadvantages to consider when it comes to climbing (or growing up) the agriculture ladder. 

Not surprisingly, vertical farming can be a costly endeavor, as land prices alone can be a huge initial cost, particularly now that such farms can be built in urban areas. As well as land, farmers must consider the infrastructure, planning, and maintenance costs involved with sourcing the best-performing crops, finding the best equipment, and hiring skilled laborers that understand all that comes with an industry still in its infancy. 

Another limitation farmers must consider when preparing to farm vertically is the small number of crops that can be grown not only vertically, but also economically. Currently, many vertical farmers focus mainly on producing leafy greens and herbs due to their rapid growth cycle, short shelf life and high profit margins. Also, some of the crops grown vertically have a low-calorie density and account for only a small proportion of our daily calorie intake. In layman’s terms, present day vertical farming simply doesn’t have the means to meet the nutritional needs of the average adult.

Although vertical farming does provide a sustainable solution to most parts of the current agriculture process, it does in-fact set itself a step back when it comes to one natural resource. Lighting. Natural light is replaced by artificial LED lighting that when turned on for an average of 12-20 hours per day, can ultimately drive-up operational costs and drastically increase the output of carbon emissions. On the other hand, a potential solution to the high energy costs of vertical farming could be answered by further utilising renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. For example, Harvest London, a certified B Corp vertical farming company, are entirely powered by renewable energy sources and claim to have achieved a consistent great taste across all their vertically grown crops. However not without further extending the already considerable upfront investment. 

Who is Climbing the Farming Ladder?

Right now, the country leading the way with the highest number of vertical farms is the USA, totalling over 2,000 locations. However, the USA aren’t the only one’s looking up for answers, vertical farms can also be seen flourishing in countries such as Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Germany, France, Italy, Brazil, The Netherlands, and here in the UK. Promising signs for an industry valued at £1.72 billion in 2018 and set to rise to £6.46 billion by just 2026.

Like Harvest London, many others have begun exploring the pros and cons to vertical farming. Ekonoke, an AI-backed vertical farming specialist, is currently in the process of growing hydroponic hops with the aim of mitigating the climate risks that are often linked with a key ingredient in the premium beer industry. The company hopes that growing hops in a fully controlled environment will be the solution to maintaining a consistent level of special compounds. Compounds that play a crucial part in creating a more desirable flavour and taste aroma profile. And to that we say… cheers!

In a greenhouse in Worcestershire, Shockingly Fresh is currently harvesting thousands of bunches of pak choi and lettuce destined to don the shelves of UK supermarkets. Unlike most vertical farms, the end-to-end hydroponic farming producer only uses only natural light, instead of LED, further reducing the carbon output of the business. Development Director, Nick Green comments: “This first farm will grow about 2m heads of leafy greens a year – around four times the yield we would expect on a patch of land this size. I can’t say it’s carbon-neutral, but it isn’t as carbon-hungry as an LED vertical farm would be,”. Shockingly Fresh hopes to build up to 40 more vertical farms, starting with their next farm in Scotland, which could in fact be the largest vertical farm we’ve seen so far in the UK.  

With a pandemic that has disrupted conventional food production and a global population expected to hit 10 billion by 2060, exploring more sustainable, efficient, and cost-effective methods to farming is much needed. Along-side other innovations in agriculture, could vertical farming be the answer we’re looking for?

If you’d like to speak to our team of Food Industry Recruitment Specialists, get in touch via (Phone Number) or at hello@macgregorblack.com