While the traditional image of farming in the UK may include rolling green hills and fields of livestock among untamed terrain, the need for advanced sustainable farming methods may be altering the agricultural landscape in the UK. However, is vertical farming an established practice in the UK?
Due to a combination of climate change, growing urban populations, employment shortages caused by Brexit, and the demand for affordable fresh produce, vertical farming UK is an established practice that is likely to see vast expansion in the near future.
To understand the current state of vertical farming UK and plans for its expansion, let’s look at vertical farming projects in the UK and the conditions that will sustain its growing popularity.
What Is Vertical Farming?
According to National Geographic, the world’s population will increase to over 9 billion people in the next 30 years. The spike in population coupled with the reduction of arable land and clean water due to climate change means that our current methods of food security are not sustainable.
Fortunately, vertical farming is one of the methods of controlled environment agriculture that is believed to be a method of sustaining food security in light of challenges posed by climate change.
The History Of Vertical Farming
To understand what modern vertical farming is and why it has risen to the forefront of modern agriculture, we first need to look at the history of vertical farming.
Simply put, vertical farming is not a particularly novel or advanced method of farming, as it’s simply a matter of growing crops along vertical lines rather than in horizontal rows. Thus vertical farming is ideal for areas with limited space and arable land, meaning that the use of vertical space translates to an improved yield per square foot of land used.
The oldest record of vertical farming dates back 2 500 years ago to the ancient Babylonians, most notably the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
However, a more tangible and observable example of vertical farming dates back 1 000 years ago to ancient Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztecs. Unlike the Babylonians, which are believed to have vertical farms in manmade structures, the Aztecs developed early hydroponics methods by growing vertical plants on rafts in rivers and lakes.
Consequently, modern vertical farming looks to the past when civilizations were at the mercy of weather patterns, which required controlled environment agriculture to maintain food security in case of disasters.
Modern Day Vertical Farming
Although ancient vertical farming methods practiced basic elements of controlled environment agriculture to maximize crop yields subject to vertical spaces and manmade conditions, modern-day vertical farming improves upon these concepts.
Modern-day controlled environment agriculture establishes holistic control of all aspects of farming conditions for specific plants. Therefore, controlled environment agriculture allows for the growth of multiple plants/crops all year round on the same farm due to accurately controlling humidity, temperature, light, and nutrients.
Therefore, unlike ancient vertical farming methods that were outdoors or a hybrid indoor/outdoor system, modern vertical farming uses large indoor environments and closely monitored stacks to grow crops all year round in a completely artificial environment.
While vertical farming has grown in popularity in countries with very high populations and concerns over future food security, such as the United States of America and China, are there any vertical farming operations in the UK?
The Current State of Vertical Farming UK
Although the UK has been relatively slow in adopting vertical farming, the estimated global market growth from £1.72bn in 2018 to £9.84bn by 2026 means that national and international intervention in the UK vertical farming market is inevitable.
Here are some of the most notable vertical farming UK projects:
Founded in 2017, Harvest London operates two vertical farms that supply over 100 different crops to restaurants that previously had to source their goods from overseas suppliers.
Subject to hydroponic growing practices via the use of renewable energy, Harvest London plans to open more vertical farms in London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Edinburgh.
Edinburgh-based company Shockingly Fresh uses naturally lit facilities to create a hybrid system between natural and artificially controlled environments for their hydroponic plants.
With five sites already operational, Shockingly Fresh plans to expand its farms to over 40 vertical farming UK locations.
As one of the global leaders in grocery technology and online grocer retail, Ocado announced its plans to invest in technology and sustainable farming by investing approximately £ 17 million pounds into vertical farming projects in 2019.
Ocado’s investment is not solely limited to vertical farming UK but is instead a joint venture with global industries such as 80 Acres Farms and Priva Holding BV. The purpose of the three-way joint venture is to establish growth in the global market under the name Infinite Acres.
At the same time, Ocado acquired a 58% share in Jones Food Company which operated the biggest vertical farm in Europe in Scunthorpe, UK. The Scunthorpe facility produces a variety of goods for suppliers across the UK, with an annual production of approximately 420 tonnes.
Crate To Plate
Situated in Central London, Crate to Plate operates out of recycled shipping crates, which translates to over 120 feet of hydroponic systems that they use to grow a variety of crops.
Consequently, Crate to Plate is an illustration of renewable energy, and the recycling of old materials such as shipping crates can translate into a sustainable and profitable vertical farming UK business that promises 24-hour delivery from over six tonnes of annual production.
Why Vertical Farming UK Is Growing
According to LettUsGrow’s co-founder Charlie Guy, there are a few reasons that he cites for the growth of vertical farming UK:
- Extreme weather conditions
- Consumer demand
- Consistent supply
Extreme Weather Conditions
As a small island with finite arable land and a growing population, the UK has always had to be at the forefront of innovation to provide food security.
Further to the above, the impact of global warming and climate change has added increased pressure on farming operations due to weather phenomena such as “the Beast from the East,” which triggers extremely cold temperatures or the increased prevalence of extended summer droughts.
The 21st century has seen a notable expansion of consumer pallets, particularly in developed countries such as the UK.
Not only is this a market for farmers to capitalize on by introducing more crops to the market that are not indigenous to the UK, but the introduction of these crops via renewable and sustainable means speaks to a public with a growing interest in the overall health and environmental impact of their purchased goods.
Coupled with consumer demand is the need for a consistent supply of goods. Therefore, by investing in controlled environment agriculture and vertical farming UK, farmers can grow various crops throughout the year.
The decision to grow exotic crops locally rather than importing them from overseas results in decreased costs for the consumer, ease of access, and the mitigation of risks inherent to global supply chains.
In conclusion, because of the consumer demand coupled with the ease of access to vertical farming technology and its improved effectiveness, vertical farming is not exclusive to agricultural companies that specialize in controlled environment agriculture.
Rather, traditional farming operations are introducing vertical farming in their business models as a way of diversifying their income and investing in a revenue stream that can turn a small profit while they wait for harvest season for their larger, seasonal operations/crops.
What Are The Vertical Farming UK Conditions Like?
Traditional agriculture in the UK has long been automated, given its status as a developed country with advanced food security policies. However, climate change and Brexit have put considerable strain on traditional farming methods in the past few years in the UK.
Because large portions of the UK’s arable land are situated in the East of England, the majority of the country does not have easy access to fresh supply chains, as close to 85% of the UK’s population live in urban areas.
While already enormous, the urban population is expected to grow in size and overall percentage of the UK’s population, meaning that readily available access to fresh food in urban centers will become a necessity.
Consequently, the need for vertical farming UK in urban areas, particularly in abandoned housing complexes and factories, will necessitate increased investment in the vertical farming industry.
Vertical farming UK uses far less water and pesticides than traditional farming methods. The reduction of pesticides and improving water security are essential for the overall environmental health of the UK and the preservation of arable land so as to allow the UK to have a hybrid system between traditional farming and controlled environment agriculture in the future.
The introduction of Brexit is believed to worsen the employment crisis in the agricultural sector of the UK, as the majority of farmworkers came from Eastern European countries and are unable to obtain the right to work in the UK like previous foreign workers.
The reduction of workers in the agricultural sector meant a notable decrease in production in the UK, which in turn resulted in increased imports and rising food prices. Vertical farming’s reliance on technology, automated machinery, and basic oversight means a sustainable production of food without the need for a large workforce.
Companies Operating in the Vertical Farming UK Industry
Along with the companies mentioned above, there are several vertical farming UK companies:
As the name implies, Growing Underground is a vertical farming operation that operates 33 meters below Clapham in South London. Growing underground uses 100% renewable energy to run its closed-loop hydroponic operation.
Growing Underground prides itself on providing pesticide-free, carbon-neutral, and nutrient-rich plants to urban areas while reducing their overall waste production by over 70% when compared to traditional farming operations.
For a brief tour and discussion of Growing Underground’s operations, feel free to follow the link below to TRT World’s YouTube video “Urban Farming: Micro-farms taking root in London’s underground”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1cu-2B7Sio
Founded in Bristol in 2015, LettUsGrow has grown from being a small producer of aeroponic grow-at-home-kits to operating a 40ft container vertical farm.
LettUsGrow differentiates itself by using its patented software, Ostara, to monitor vertical farming operations with pinpoint accuracy and consistency.
Founded in 2017 in London, Vertical Future’s growing center supplies more than 100 food establishments in London.
Further to its own operations, Vertical Future has a manufacturing department as well as a research and development team to help develop the overall vertical farming market and its technologies across the UK.
What Is The Update On The UK’s Largest Vertical Farm?
While the UK is already home to the largest vertical farm in Europe, the Jones Food Company announced on the 29th of September 2021 that it would be breaking ground for the construction of the world’s largest vertical farm.
Dubbed the JFC2, this vertical farm in Lydney, Gloucestershire, is a multimillion-dollar project that will offer over 148 000 feet of vertical growing space (approximately the size of 70 tennis courts!)
Upon completion in early 2022, the JFC2 is expected to produce thousands of tonnes of food annually, to be distributed to tens of thousands of supermarkets across the UK. The JFC2 intends to boost its production with over 17 vertical layers, all of which use no pesticides and 95% less water than traditional farming methods.
Not only will this signal the adoption of vertical farming as a mainstay of agriculture and make the UK a global leader in vertical farming, but it will also pave the way to the ultimate goal of supplying 70% of the UK’s fresh produce within the next ten years.
Conclusion And Round-Up
In conclusion, although the UK is not yet at the forefront of vertical farming technology, all signs and current projects indicate the UK will soon be a global leader in the fight against climate change through sustainable vertical farming across urban spaces.