The UK’s First Vertical Farm
Henry Aykroyd, CEO of Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS), blogs about the UK’s first vertical farm, which is being built at The James Hutton Institute in Scotland.
What is vertical farming and why is it the future?
Vertical farming is the process by which plants and certain crops are grown indoors in a vertically-arranged system, providing the exact lighting and environmental conditions necessary for plant growth.
By adopting the principles of Total Controlled Environment Agriculture (TCEA), a system in which all aspects of the growing environment can be controlled (light, temperature, humidity, nutrition and even air composition), it is possible to eliminate variations in the growing environment, enabling the grower to produce consistent, high quality crops all year round.
Furthermore, the use of TCEA means that the optimum growth conditions can be communicated digitally to other growth systems anywhere in the world through networked systems. TCEA is an absolute requirement before indoor growing can be successfully replicated and scaled, which could greatly contribute to the ‘Internet of Plants’.
How does vertical farming address current challenges specific to farming and agriculture?
Modern agriculture faces a number of challenges, which will only be exacerbated as climate and population conditions change. These include water scarcity, land use and the problems associated with monoculture, the use of pesticides and their impacts on health and the natural environment due to their use.
Improvements in technology in the traditional farming sector alleviate many of these issues but are unable to solve them all.
One of the biggest challenges to agriculture is waste. It is believed that sometimes up to 90% of salad crops grown are not consumed. Losses occur in the field, through harvesting, packaging and processing, distribution, on the shelf and eventually from the end consumer. By growing closer to the market in controlled vertical farming conditions, it is possible to accurately predict and grow to market demand. The products are fresher, have a longer shelf life, and crop losses due to weather, disease, drought, or pests are effectively eliminated.
The Internet of Plants
For IGS, the project being undertaken at The James Hutton Institute is just the beginning. The project will facilitate the development of our technology to demonstrate its scalability and the opportunities to deliver this at a global level.
This site will play host to our developments for the ‘Internet of Plants’, where algorithms for the perfect growing conditions can be formulated and shared digitally to ensure that other users are able to grow crops consistently, wherever they are. We believe that the project will demonstrate that growing locally is possible and fully scalable at a technology, cost and quality level.
Challenges of vertical farming
Cost. The technology has to become cheaper for it to be used as a mainstream solution. IGS is working towards a system that will enable low initial capital outlay, scalability, flexibility, efficiency and reduced labour through automation.
Energy. Sunlight is free and this will always be one of the biggest issues with TCEA. However, by enabling the technology to be compatible with smart energy, it can actually provide a means of supporting the national grid and encouraging the national adoption of renewable energy. Furthermore, IGS’s advances in the efficient use of photons means that as little energy as possible is wasted.
Is vertical farming a solution or the solution?
Vertical farming can be part of a solution to the issues of urbanisation and food security by reducing waste and potentially freeing up land for other food crops to be grown. It cannot be the ultimate solution as it is not possible to grow all food crops within this environment.
Arguably, it is the consumer demand for high value crops such as salad leaves that has facilitated the rise in vertical farming rather than the currently available technology.
To date, the superior efficiency of LED technology over traditional greenhouse lighting has enabled users to justify high capital expenditure for initial purchase of LED lighting systems. However, without the high price tag per kilo for the crops being grown in these systems it is unlikely that any real progress would have occurred or would continue in the future.
LED technology in horticulture is in its infancy and without bringing the initial cost of these systems down, improving the controllability of the lighting and improving their running costs it is unlikely that the industry would continue to rise. IGS has developed the tools to enable this and by combining the novel lighting system with automation it is possible to further collapse the running costs through the reduction of unnecessary labour. Furthermore, the lighting system facilitates smarter energy usage which can increase plant production during periods of peak energy supply and switch off during peak energy demand. The positive repercussions of this for the energy network are huge.
Find out more about Intelligent Growth Solutions
To find out more about Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) and what they are working on check out their website and follow the James Hutton Institute @jameshuttonltd for more news about their initiatives.