While growing plants without soil and water under neon pink lights may sound like a Huxley-esque fiction, for those in the booming agrotech industry it is increasingly anything but.
Hailed by some as the future of food production, so-called ‘vertical farms’ stack containers of leafy plants one on top of the other, often in disused warehouses in which factors such as temperature, fertiliser quantity and lighting can be controlled. Shipping containers and skyscrapers are other likely spaces.
In Scunthorpe, a disused cold storage facility has been transformed by new firm The Jones Food Company. Staffed by just four people, the cutting edge ‘greenhouse’ is designed to produce 500 tonnes of plants annually – making it the biggest in Europe. It produces mint, chive, watercress and a small range of other microgreens. Trading since October 2018, Jones Food sold the entire first herb crop to Greencore Group Plc, the UK’s leading manufacturer of convenience foods.
The north of England facility is part of a much larger upswing in the vertical farming market, which first emerged in places short of arable land such as Japan and Korea. Intelligent Growth Solutions opened Scotland’s first in 2018, cutting labour costs by 80 per cent. In the States, San Francisco-based Plenty raised $200m in 2017 in Series B funding from investors, led by the SoftBank Vision Fund and including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and former Google boss Eric Schmidt. In addition, the market for vertical farming tools was worth $2.5bn in 2017 and is forecast to reach $13bn in 2024 according to Global Market Insights.
Over the next 33 years the world’s population is set to grow to 9.7 billion and, by 2050, research has found, food production will need to increase by an estimated 70 per cent in developed countries. Vertical farms offer a potential solution, so long as the energy demands can be reduced.
Lettuces grown in traditionally heated greenhouses in the UK need approximately 250kWh of energy per year for every square metre of growing area, while lettuces grown in a vertical farm need an estimated 3,500kWh a year. Almost all (98 per cent) of this energy use is due to artificial lighting and climate control.
Jones Food Company aims to reduce the problem by aiming for a lower carbon footprint with its lighting methods. With a plan to replace 30 traditional 60-watt bulbs with LEDs, they would more than halve the CO2 produced annually to 205kg, down from 475kg.
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