Vertical Farming reaches new highs and new lows

Ian Curran

UK government invests millions of pounds in the fight against the next pandemic

With the spread of a rapidly growing population reducing arable land whilst increasing the likelihood of another pandemic, the UK government is investing millions of pounds into the development of vertical farming. 

Overpopulation is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), human overpopulation is one of the leading causes in the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases. Dr Michael Ryan, the Executive Director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, claims that the COVID-19 pandemic “has spread around the world extremely quickly and it has affected every corner of this planet, but this is not necessarily the big one.” Ryan warns that we must get “serious” about preparedness for the next globally devastating disease.

But how do we prepare for the next pandemic?

If coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown measures have taught us anything, it is that accessible and affordable food is essential, not purely for our diet and physical health, but also for our mental wellbeing. As the country’s food supply is prioritised as a national security issue, it would appear the UK government is getting “serious” about preparedness. The Agriculture Act 2020 states that the Secretary of State must “prepare and lay before Parliament a report containing an analysis of statistical data relating to food security in the United Kingdom,” at least every three years. Also, the 1st January 2021 saw the start of a 7-year transition scheme to move UK farming away from EU-based rules to boost productivity and sustainability. The new government farming policy sets out plans to pay farmers to improve the environment, improve animal health and welfare, and reduce carbon emissions: “From 2021, we will offer funding for equipment, technology and infrastructure that improves farm productivity and benefits the environment.”

Less land but more demand

However, even with government funding, farmers face enormous challenges. With the current global population of 7.8 billion set to increase by 2 billion within the next 30 years, food productivity must increase substantially to cope with demand. By 2050 around 68% of people are expected to live in urban areas. Potential farmland will diminish as towns and cities expand and with 80% of agricultural land already in use, the question is: how can the UK produce and supply enough food for a rapidly increasing population with rapidly decreasing natural resources? The answer could be vertical farming.

Instead of farming vegetables and other foods in a field or single-layered greenhouse, vertical farming produces foods in vertically stacked layers. Controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) technology manipulates artificial light, humidity and temperature to maximise food production from within a limited, indoor space. The UK government has recognised the potentially considerable benefits of vertical farming and is now providing funding opportunities for businesses working to accelerate the development of the industry.

The Vertical Farming Centre of Excellence

With the rolling hills of Cumbria being the symbol of traditional farming, it may seem surprising that the area is embracing such a modern trend. Still, plans are underway to build a 70,000-metre squared, carbon neutral facility in Lillyhall. The Vertical Farming Centre of Excellence is expected to receive a £5.5m grant to become one of the largest integrated vertical farming operations in the UK. Deputy Chair of Cumbria’s Local Enterprise Partnership, Jim Jackson, has said “the creation of a vertical farm at Lillyhall will be an important addition to Cumbria’s exceptional food offer alongside our existing meat and dairy offer. It will make an important contribution to food security and significantly reduce the water required in crop growing.” As vertical farming uses aeroponic or hydroponic growing mediums in place of soil, the process uses between 70-95% less water than traditional cultivation.

Photo Credit: Square Mile Farms

Sewers to skyscrapers

With vertical farming using less water and less space, it also becomes a viable option within our towns and cities. In fact, vertical farming can already be seen above the skyscrapers and beneath the sewers of England’s capital city. Overlooking one of London’s busiest train stations is a hydroponic rooftop farm. Square Mile Farms is a company aiming to create a culture of self-sufficient city dwellers by integrating vertical farms into the home and the workplace. Hosting events and tours from their rooftop farm in Paddington, Square Mile Farms are educating people on the “incredible physical and mental wellbeing benefits of plants…whilst promoting a more sustainable agricultural system.”

Meanwhile, beneath the streets of London, from a World War II air raid shelter, sprawls the world’s largest subterranean vertical farm. The company, Growing Underground, was founded in 2012 to repurpose the abandoned tunnels of Clapham into a farming facility. Located around 110ft below ground, the farm utilises 1 kilometre of underground tunnels to cultivate a wide range of vegetables, microgreens and herbs. The farm currently produces crops such as broccoli, radishes, pea shoots and coriander. Company Secretary, Bethany Thurston recognises the incredible potential of vertical farming: “In essence, we can grow hundreds of different types of crop as anything can be grown hydroponically. We have a dedicated R&D area where we trial many different crops. As the technology in this sector improves, more and more types of crops will become economically viable, including ubiquitous babyleaf and soft fruits.” With no pest problems or weather worries, Growing Underground delivers fresh produce all year round to the very people walking above them. 

Photo Credit: Paul Marc Mitchell

Funding the future

Businesses working on the development of vertical farming infrastructure are now able to connect with Areande. Positioned to unlock funding and innovation tax relief, Areande is a company working with innovators in the vertical farming industry to assess eligibility and submit bespoke R&D claims. 

Developing new processes and systems for food production will be essential in our response to global overpopulation and will go some way in preparing the country for yet another pandemic. 

To find out if your business is eligible for financial support, CLICK HERE to connect with Areande.