Two workers in a vertical farm

Horizontal growth for vertical farming during pandemic

Covid-19 has prompted a spike in interest in vertical farming as retailers and governments have scrambled to improve supply chain resilience, according to industry professionals.

A non-traditional growing method, using aeroponics, hydroponics or aquaponics, vertical farming’s benefits include high yield, no climate effect, minimal pesticide use, less water consumption and a smaller space requirement.

One hectare of vertical farming is equivalent in yield to nine hectares of traditional outdoor farming and vertical farms can also incorporate growing systems into areas such as rooftops or the sides of commercial high rises to create ‘farmscrapers’. Aeroponics, for example, uses mist, mixed with vital nutrients directed to the open roots of plants, and can produce 70 per cent more yield than traditional agriculture, using 95 per cent less water.

The UK currently only produces 50 per cent of the food it consumes, and with the coronavirus pandemic highlighting the fragility of the UK’s just-in-time food supply chain, it is a longer-term solution that may be increasingly employed, say proponents. High initial investments and technology lag hamper the vertical farming market, however, and the movement is not without its critics.

World-renowned environmental scientist Dr Jonathan Foley has said: “Vertical farming is basically a solution in search of a problem. The notion that we would try to grow food indoors – with expensive lighting systems, pumps, sealed environments and costly infrastructure – is certainly not a way to grow food sustainably or affordably. Initially, they sound great – because they might be able to recycle water, and temporarily avoid using pesticides – but the overall environmental impact of these operations is enormous, and I do not think they will improve food access, security, or sustainability.”

Nevertheless, for many vertical farming is the vision of future food production and the global market is projected to reach US$1.77bn by 2026. For many fledgling companies, the pandemic has also been an accelerant to current business. LettUs Grow was one such company – fast-tracking the building of two vertical farm modules in Bristol to meet local demand. Jack Farmer, co-founder told Horti Daily: “When we founded LettUs Grow, we wanted to enable anyone, anywhere in the world, to grow fresh produce near its point of consumption. That mission has hardly ever felt as urgent as it does today.”

Another British company, Intelligent Growth Solutions, has also been producing valuable local food through the pandemic. But CEO David Farquar, interviewed on the Vertical Farming Podcast, was cautious about seeing the pandemic as a major turning point for the industry. “Yes, there are huge opportunities but let’s be realistic,” he said. “Vertical farming and indoor agriculture are young; making them work is a marathon task, but it will be fascinating to see what changes last on the back of this pandemic.”

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