Amy Duff 31 Oct 2017 01:16pm

Onwards and upwards

For centuries the soil has been tilled to grow food. But as the world’s population increases, so the availability of cultivatable land shrinks. Throw in climate change, shortage of water, and demand for local produce, says Amy Duff, and vertical farming becomes more than just science fiction

Caption: Vertical farming is growing in popularity. Photography: Anzenberger
In 1973, Charlton Heston starred in Soylent Green, a film depicting Earth as overpopulated and polluted. With natural resources exhausted by “the greenhouse effect”, one business provided the population with artificial nourishment. In 1995, Kevin Costner’s character in Waterworld traded in soil, a rare commodity because the polar ice caps had melted and most land was underwater. In the 2014 blockbuster Insterstellar, Matthew McConaughey played a pilot who leaves his family behind to search for new planets as a crop shortage threatens humanity’s survival.

Many more films have grappled with the idea of what humans might do if faced with a food crisis. In reality, the agriculture sector has long been innovating to counter the challenge of nourishing the planet sustainably – the World Bank says the world needs to produce 50% more food to feed nine billion people by 2050 – and astronauts really are growing plants and vegetables in space. NASA says the data from investigations on the International Space Station will, among other things, help farmers on Earth “produce better, healthier crops in small spaces using the optimum amount of water and nutrients”.

Small spaces, less water, nutrient-rich: this is where artificial environments – growing plants or crops indoors – come into their own. Controlled-environment agriculture has for many years been dominated by glasshouses, epitomised by the Kent-based high-tech greenhouse complex Thanet Earth, which produces tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers under glass. Vertical farming – where plants grow on vertically stacked layers in a climate-controlled, indoor facility – has become more of a story as technology has improved.

“Traditional” farming has been using digital equipment to boost production. Drone, sensor and GPS technology can quickly identify the quality of soil or whether the land is waterlogged. Machinery has become more intuitive and productive – European firm CNH Industrial unveiled an autonomous concept tractor at the Farm Progress Show in Iowa in 2016. Farmers can become climatologists and track weather data, if not actually influence Mother Nature – we’re not cloudbusting yet.

By contrast, in the controlled environment, where almost everything is automated, the technology has had to be cutting edge to produce food efficiently and to scale. Until recently this, combined with the cost of assimilating new technology into the growing systems, and lack of flexibility (it’s not staple crops such as rice and cereals but mainly short-stemmed leafy greens and herbs) kept vertical farming on the periphery.

But “agtech” is beginning to turn heads. The US vertical farming firm Plenty made the news in July when SoftBank, Innovation Endeavors (Eric Schmidt) and Bezos Expeditions invested in the business. The Japanese firm Spread is expanding (lettuce is its speciality) with a second factory, and has been profitable since 2013. In Sweden Plantagon is close to seeing its vision for a vertical urban farm in Linköping come to fruition. Dubai-based Enspire, whose founder Soud Ba’alawy sees global food security and sustainable food production as a critical challenge for the future, last year invested in Plantagon’s proposition to create an office building that will produce vegetables on its south façade. And Green Sense Farms has become the largest US commercial indoor vertical farm with plans to expand after a successful round of regulated crowdfunding. It has already started growth trials on a farm in Shenzhen, China.

As Ben Craw, partner in PwC Australia’s Food & Agribusiness Advisory team, observes: “Controlled-environment agriculture and the related practice of vertical farming is on the rise around the world. What we’ve seen here in Australia is glasshouse, and vertical farming is the next step. It will become a lot more mainstream because of the efficiencies it brings to farming operations.”

Those efficiencies include all-season production (higher yields), lower labour costs, less spoilage, fewer food miles, and quality food without the use of pesticides. As Craw explains: “With vertical farming you are able to pump up the yield per square metre, and it uses significantly less water and fewer synthetics. It is a way to turn your land into a more production intensive asset. Vertical farming also removes climatic risk in the supply chain. You can grow seasonal products all year round and move to a flat supply curve in the longer term. It’s an exciting development, but growth and success in Australia will come down to securing offtake agreements, because, though profitable, it’s a capital-intensive business with a lot of variables.”

That’s long been the rub, and is not unique to Australia. “It’s not really an option for family firms in the majority of the UK because it’s so capital-intensive and mechanised,” observes Mark Chatterton, head of agriculture at Duncan & Toplis, which is based in Lincolnshire and has nearly 1,000 farming clients. “They’re always trying to keep one step ahead,” he says of the 200 or so farmers he speaks to throughout the year. “Those progressive businesses at the forefront of developing new ideas have got into renewable technologies; they’ll look for diversification through tourism, or alternative uses of old farm buildings. But vertical farming is an industrial process that happens on a large scale. Unless they’ve got an asset – an underground bunker, a warehouse – your average farm would have to start from scratch.” And that excludes many.

Yet there is a real issue facing the UK government and others: as our need for food increases, so does the demand on land (housing problems have reached crisis point in many European countries). “It’s a decision the UK needs to make at government level – do we want to be a net importer of food or an exporter? And how much do we want to make with all the other demands on that land? What are our priorities?” asks Sarah Attwood, who works on audit, assurance and agriculture at Kreston Reeves. “One way that has been identified is vertical farming, particularly for higher value crops. If you look at mushrooms, for example, production is done on a vertical basis. I can see it’s a way that we can produce more higher-value products like salad, perhaps even going into soft fruit,” she suggests. “But if it’s to be done on a commercial level then issues of public perception will need to be addressed.”

What she’s getting at here is an education point about food production; an understanding about where food comes from and that if the agricultural sector is to tackle the combination of feeding the population and maintaining the availability of food while keeping costs down, it may need to rely less on the natural ecosystem and use more science.

“One solution that has been mooted, and they’re looking at in America, is genetically modified (GM) products. There are pros and cons but the general public’s perception in the UK is they don’t want that, they want a natural product. Will that opinion translate to vertical farming? We’re looking at a structure with no natural sunlight, are they going to be OK with that? Is it still going to be seen as organic? If it’s got more man-made nutrients going into it, is that an issue? Growing herbs vertically in an old underground station isn’t going to solve our food shortage problems but it might be a good way to get into peoples’ minds about the availability and production of food,” says Attwood.

It’s true that the vertical farms making an impact commercially, or scaling up at least, are mostly outside the UK. So could they be a non-starter in a country that likes to think of its food as coming from the green and pleasant land even if it’s not? Mike Dyer, Attwood’s colleague at Kreston Reeves, who is head of agriculture and chair of ICAEW’s Farming & Rural Business Community, agrees that GM could be an issue, even though vertical farming offers sustainability benefits (many installations use close-loop systems where waste is eliminated through repurposing and recycling; their goal is zero net energy use; their products are free of pesticides and fertiliser). GM needs a rebrand, suggests Dyer, so that the idea of food not grown in soil becomes more palatable: “You can produce all-year-round crops, but will people adopt that because traditionally they like seasonal products? You’ve got to get over this public perception that GM is Frankenstein as opposed to enhancement,” he says.

Ultimately it could boil down to whether agriculture, residential or industrial needs win the battle for land, but there is a time imperative, says Dyer. “You can improve yields at a certain level by better application of chemicals – fertilisers, protection of soil and so on – but there is a bell curve where that starts to drop away. The big issues in large-scale farming are yields, weather, disease and drought. You can try to overcome those with scientific enhancement and make better, disease-resistant crops, for example, or crops resistant to attack by natural predators. But you’ve got to get over this public perception that you’re tinkering with nature.”

Many agricultural businesses are good at looking for opportunities anyway, according to the advisers we spoke to (although Attwood does point out that a lot of small scale businesses are just not interested in adopting technology “and probably won’t be here in 20 years time”). More entrepreneurial farmers will look at today’s methods and invest in some R&D to learn how to do it slightly differently, or look at their assets and work out how to utilise them. An old barn might work for vertical farming, a roof for solar.

And the numbers for vertical farming can add up. According to Attwood, labour is a huge cost for the higher value commodities produced in the UK at the moment – things like salad, herbs and soft fruit. “Between 50% to 70% of their whole cost base might be labour, and that might increase during Brexit,” she says. “Availability of labour is going to decrease, you might need to pay more. We’re seeing in most sectors at the moment with the devaluation of sterling, and Brexit concerns, that it’s harder to get labour. Doing something under a vertical structure could be a solution: it’s machine-driven, fewer people are needed, and it can happen all year round so you can have a full-time employee rather than having to worry about seasonal labour.” On the flipside, you have the cost of the kit – the LED lights, for example, are expensive – and the technology.

A public-private collaboration makes sense. Chatterton says the industry is crying out for tax relief on buildings, for example. “A lot of farm buildings are 50 years old and they need modernising. At the moment there are no capital allowances on buildings like there is for plant/machinery,” he says. Attwood would like to see a more pragmatic, or commercial approach to regulation, to free up farmers. And Dyer agrees with all of the above. “We’d like tax incentives so farmers can adopt the technology they need. The government could get more involved in the education of the public. It’s not necessarily misinformation but lack of information that people base decisions on. Schools have a big part to play, too. Until Mr Jamie Oliver got involved a whole generation thought tomatoes came from the fridge.”

Whether any generation will be able to get its head round some of their food coming from a shelf rather than a field, or engineers and electricians producing crops rather than farmers, remains to be seen. For now, vertical farming is a niche. It’s not going to feed the world but it’s serving a purpose, pushing boundaries and helping to solve certain problems.

And if Google gets to build its circular (“restorative and regenerative”) city with renewable energy, citywide composting, buildings made of reused materials, and shared transportation at its heart, then you can bet vertical farming will be right up there on the blueprint. As the Ellen Macarthur Foundation says: “There’s a world of opportunity to rethink and redesign the way we make stuff.”