Can urban agriculture and vertical farming help feed a hungry world?

PUBLISHED: 06:00 30 January 2020 | UPDATED: 07:55 30 January 2020

Leafy greens and herbs grown by Square Mile Farms on the roof of Microsoft's office in Paddington. Picture: SquareMileFarms

Leafy greens and herbs grown by Square Mile Farms on the roof of Microsoft's office in Paddington. Picture: SquareMileFarms

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Futuristic food-growing techniques like vertical farming and indoor urban agriculture can help feed the world – but this fast-growing sector needs to scale up to meet that challenge.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYDr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

This will be the focus of an event which will bring industry innovators to the Norwich Research Park to discuss the potential of controlled-environment agriculture (CEA).

With a rising population adding pressure on finite supplies of farmland, new technologies are emerging which can grow food within enclosed structures such as greenhouses to optimise resources like land and energy - often using soilless, hydroponic systems to supply precise amounts of water and nutrients to the plants' roots.

Industry leaders including LettUs Grow, Growpura and Square Mile Farms will be sharing their insights at the John Innes Centre on March 18 at a seminar organised by Agri-TechE, formerly known as Agri-Tech East.

CEA is a fast-growing sector, worth an estimated £1.72bn in 2018 worldwide - with experts predicting that figure will rise to £9.84bn by 2026.

Agri-TechE director Dr Belinda Clarke said these technologies could play an important role alongside traditional agriculture - as long as they can make the next growth leap to achieve economies of scale.

"Scale-up is the next big challenge for controlled-environment agriculture," she said.

"There are still obstacles to overcome and the industry is experimenting with different technologies and business models, such as diversification of existing vegetable production, purpose-built facilities or niche cultivation close to the point of use - to gain competitive market price for its products."

One of around 20 speakers and exhibitors at the conference is Jock Richardson of Growpura, whose technology is designed for large production facilities, using hydroponics in a "clean room" environment and featuring an automated system to move plants.

"We are going to see continued invention for small-scale hydroponics, but on the industrial end the challenge to be broached is how growing operations are scaled," he said. "A lot of operators have some great technology but to grow bigger means a linear, or worse, increase in costs. Energy management is one of the key issues to be solved in this. There is a lot happening in sustainable energy supply and I think it is going to make a big difference to how farmers and consumers view CEA in the coming years."

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Jack Farmer, co-founder of aeroponic systems developer LettUs Grow, predicts a "synergy" between existing horticulture and advances in CEA.

"Essentially, vertical farms will prove complementary to glasshouse horticulture, with technology increasingly being shared between them," he said.

"The benefits of aeroponics come from the health of the plant's root base and this is particularly valuable when you are seeking to accelerate growth rate, such as in leafy green production or propagation. But we are very open to collaborating with different tech providers where that adds value to the grower."

Another emerging idea is the concept of "urban farms" to help re-engage city consumers with food production, and to help big businesses to achieve their sustainability goals.

Johnathan Ransom, whose family are farmers in Lincolnshire, is a co-founder of Square Mile Farms which opened its flagship farm in February 2019 on the rooftop of British Land's London business campus in Paddington Central.

It grows leafy greens, microgreens and herbs for local restaurants and produces fresh "veg bags" for local employees.

Mr Ransom said: "Initially we came up with 'flat-pack farms', which enabled us to put growing units into tight urban spaces such as offices or on rooftops. However, growing and supplying food in cities is challenging and we realised we needed a commercial model that is not wholly reliant on produce sales to ensure this was going to really work for the future."

- Agri-TechE's event, named "Controlled Environment Agriculture - The Industry is Growing Up", will be held at The John Innes Centre, Norwich Research Park from 9am-5pm on March 18. For tickets and information, see the Agri-TechE website.

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