When the pandemic brought food shortages and panic buying to Britain, one of the quickest and most effective solutions to feed local communities came from vertical farms.

The actions of Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS), which helped its local community in Dundee, and LettUs Grow, which accelerated the building of two new vertical farm modules to help feed the people of Bristol, not only got supremely fresh, healthy food to those in need – but proved why this method of farming is changing the world.

What is vertical farming?

“Think of it as a box with its own weather system inside it,” says IGS CEO David Farquhar. “We’re controlling temperature and humidity, but also light, which other growing systems can’t do. Because we have ultimate control of all those different environments, we can tailor the crop exactly how we want it. It’s quicker, too – we can grow basil in 20 days, half the time it would take outside. We can grow up to seven crops in a single year.”

The micromanaged growing conditions mean crops can be cultivated all year round, independent of season, from the desert to the Arctic, because they are impervious to the drought and flooding risks to some of the world’s most agriculture-dependent economies. Not only that, they can be grown in a fraction of the space and by a fraction of the workforce – and local, anytime, anywhere production will reduce carbon footprint and boost local economies.

Can it really save the world?

Potentially, yes – vertical farming is, literally, a lifesaver. By 2050 there will be more than nine billion people on the planet and it’s estimated we’ll need to produce 50% more food to sustain them; but on a planet that has already lost 30% of its arable land in the last 40 years.

“Until very recently, arable farming hadn’t fundamentally changed since Victorian times,” says James Lloyd-Jones, CEO and founder of Jones Food Company, the largest vertical farm in Europe. “But this is local, healthy food – you can order food that is harvested just an hour before its journey to the shops and so is fresher when it reaches you and it has a longer shelf life – and it can be grown absolutely anywhere.”

Jones launched his business as a start-up just two years ago but, having seen the benefits of vertical farming, was determined to aim high. “I went to Japan and saw their models but realised there were other elements we could bolt on.”

The controlled conditions give us, depending on crop type, between seven and 14 more growth cycles a year than the typical greenhouse – producing 420m tonnes of food per year

James Lloyd-Jones
CEO and founder, Jones Food Company

So he developed partnerships and secured £5m of funding to build his extraordinary 5,000-square metre farm in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire. Machines insert seeds into trays with exactly the optimum growing space between each, and these are then placed in a germination chamber. The resulting seedlings are transferred to a growing chamber, of racks 17 layers high, where they are fed a water-based nutrient mix under strictly controlled temperatures, humidity levels and 24-hour pink-hued LED light intensity.

“The controlled conditions give us, depending on crop type, between seven and 14 more growth cycles a year than the typical greenhouse – producing 420m tonnes of food per year,” says Lloyd-Jones. “They also mean we have no need for herbicides or pesticides, giving us perfect, natural crops and shorter lead-in times for orders, meaning there is no wastage.”

What can vertical farms grow?

Early vertical farms in the US were restricted to a few green-leaf crops, such as lettuce, but the system is now providing many more solutions. Lloyd-Jones also grows herbs, root vegetables, asparagus and soft fruit, while IGS has also expanded its output to include seed potatoes, strawberries and broccoli.

“This has the potential to shorten those supply chains and bring the source of production much closer to the point of consumption,” says Farquhar. “That’s going to make a very significant difference to the cost and availability of food.”

A cloud-based system called total controlled environment agriculture (TCEA), also allows growers to remotely instruct and supervise their operations from anywhere. Plants can be monitored for growth, disease and pests, while machinery can self-heal, report faults or self-schedule maintenance tasks – and make the whole farm-to-fork process more efficient.

“TCEA means customers, such as supermarkets, can place orders in advance and track supply-chain progress,” says Farquhar. “Governments can check on food supplies for their populations and take corrective action where necessary. Optimum growth conditions can be traded digitally between growth systems anywhere in the world, which improves productivity.”

This will enable governments to better monitor supply and demand, therefore ensuring the right amount of food gets to the right place, preventing hunger and excess waste.

Advocates of vertical farming say it’s necessary for global food security. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has reported that more than a third of the world’s cereal crops are fed to livestock to sustain global meat production, which by 2050 will increase by more than 400m tonnes and therefore require even more cereals for feeding.

Isn’t it expensive?

But sceptics have also voiced concerns that the currently high cost of production could raise consumer prices; others fear that Silicon Valley tech investors or money-rich, natural-resource-poor Middle East states could control food production to the detriment of traditional farming communities in developing economies.

“As an industry it’s a work in progress,” says Lloyd-Jones. “But we are finding solutions.” Investment is not a concern for him because in February last year, Ocado was so impressed it offered to take a majority share in his business – and he accepted.

“It’s a very exciting time – for the business but also for moving vertical farming into the mainstream,” he says. “We’re seeing container farms and hobby farms, although I think these will disappear. I think we will see more mergers between farms and retailers, between farms and researchers, which will bring those costs down.”

This is clearly already happening – Lloyd-Jones’s company has installed solar panels with the aim of becoming 100% carbon-neutral, and IGS has developed a system of smart power and technology solutions that will reduce energy costs by 50%. “Making technology compatible with smart energy can provide a means of supporting the national grid and encouraging the adoption of renewable energy,” says Farquhar. “IGS’s advances in the use of photons mean that only the energy levels actually impacting plant growth are used.”

It’s the only way to grow

And, says Lloyd-Jones, mitigating barriers of cost will accelerate vertical farming’s arrival as the most effective and efficient way to feed the whole planet. “This is the way to grow food in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way,” he says. “Twenty years ago, no one shopped online. Now we all buy from Amazon. It’ll be the same with vertical farming.

“Coronavirus in particular has made us all think about the practicalities of life and what’s necessary and what isn’t. It’s not necessary for asparagus to travel hundreds of miles to get to your plate. Vertical farming is not just the future, it’s the present.”

Sector Trends
Business planning
Starting a business
Scaling up a business
Grow a business

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of NatWest Group, as of this date and are subject to change without notice. Copyright © NatWest Group. All rights reserved.

scroll to top