Taking vertical agriculture up a level
As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
Taking vertical agriculture up a level
by Arable Farming Magazine November/December 2022 issue
After five years of development, cleaner and greener crops all year round are the result of what is claimed to be the most optimised vertical farming system in the world.
A âturnkey solution to vertical farming has been launched by agricultural technology company Innovation Agri-Tech Group (IAG), in its GrowFrame 360 model.
Ash Singh, chief executive of the company, has been developing the technology with a team of experts over five years to create what he claims is the most optimised vertical farming system in the world.
With a vision to continue the legacy of his grandfather, who farmed in the Punjab, Mr Singh hopes the system will help produce nutritious food in parts of the world struggling with food security or water scarcity, but also act as an enterprise that can be implemented on UK farms or in urban populations with limited space.
The soil-less system uses aeroponic irrigation and closed loop water recycling to provide water and highly precise nutrients with no pesticides.
Up to 98% less water is required and the company claims up to five times more harvests per year can be achieved than if the crop was grown in a field.
One GrowFrame 360 model equates to 0.8 hectares of crop, meaning the 5,000sq.ft development room at IAGs facility in Berkshire is equivalent to a 16ha field.
Rather than crops being grown on shelves, as in many vertical farms, the true upright style of the system means taller plants, such as spring onions and chard, can be produced without height restrictions, while each frames nutrients and water rates can be tailored at the push of a button with pre-programmed routines for each individual crop.
Mr Singh says: We have grown a massive array of crops at our own R&D farm.
The scope is broad, although the system is particularly well-suited to higher value, niche crops for sale into top-end retail, restaurants, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and vertically-integrated food manufacturers.
Regarding scale, the main limiting factors are the size of your building or market outlet, but the modular nature of the system means it could be assembled relatively quickly within any pre-existing agricultural building.
One thing he is sure of is the system is not set to compete with existing producers We dont want to compare ourselves to conventional farming in anyway we feel we complement traditional farming.
Vertical farming is not the solution to grow what our farmers are growing, like root vegetables.
But were confident we can help growers move away from the seasonality of certain high-value products.
With this in mind he sees main markets in the UK as businesses looking for a lower volume of produce than supermarkets, such as high-end restaurants.
This will be helped by the models sustainability credentials which, alongside its research partners including NIAB, CHAP, Agri-TechE and the University of Essex, IAG plans to build on.
Although produce from the system cannot be marketed as organic because of the lack of soil in the growing process, the companys R&D farm was one of the first UK vertical farms to become Red Tractor and Global GAP assured.
However, despite the exciting potential of the technology, the energy crisis is putting a dampener on protected horticultural businesses.
Mr Singh says: We need support from all areas - from the industry, Government and from supporting businesses that are growing.
We are keen to engage with farming businesses where a complementary renewables system could be established on the farms land base to power the technology directly, providing an environmentally and financially sustainable system.
Renewable energy plays a massive part in this it comes with a capex cost, but payback is much faster with the current energy prices. However, if youre renewing your energy contract this year it doesnt make commercial sense to start growing at this time.
The only way is up
Currently, just 10% of UK horticulture businesses are classed as controlled environment, but Government hopes to see this rise.
Plans to boost home-grown fruit and vegetable production and drive the growth of high tech horticulture were set out in October by Environment Secretary Ranil Jayawardena as part of the Governments work to âunleash the potential of British farming.
Defra says glasshouse growing has multiple economic, food security and sustainability benefits and businesses operating with this model are reaping benefits from extended growing seasons, efficient water usage and higher yields.
To kickstart efforts to grow the horticulture sector and boost domestic production, Mr Jayawardena committed a further £12.5 million investment into automation and robotics through the Farming Innovation Programme.
This is a top-up of more than £70m spent so far.
The fund opens in January with UK Research and Innovation and will match fund projects that will drive economic growth, food security and deliver on environmental commitments.
Mr Jayawardena says: While we have a high degree of food security, we can boost it further.
We can increase home-grown fruit and vegetable production, which is why I am bringing in expert advice and match funding robotics and automation projects.
Ahead of the announcement, the Environment Secretary visited the Netherlands to learn more about high-tech greenhouse and vertical growing approaches, touring a robotics institute and a glasshouse business which uses artificial intelligence, robotics, renewable energy and water neutral systems to grow produce.
He also announced he would appoint an industry expert to work with him and colleagues across the edible and ornamental sectors to build a clearer picture of the barriers and opportunities in controlled environment horticulture.
The Government says the expert will provide a set of recommendations and policy interventions that it can implement both immediately and longer term.
Mr Jayawardena has also written to a number of major controlled environment horticulture growers to seek the industrys views on how Government can best support its expansion and ensure its policies best reflect industry needs.
In its food strategy, Government signalled a commitment to including industrial horticulture in decisions on industrial energy policy and reviewing the planning permission process to support new developments.
Plans to incentivise the sector to make use of surplus heat and CO2 from industrial processes, and renewable sources of energy are also being considered, says Defra.
Robots present new challenges
A Rabobank report released in October concluded that growers will not produce food more cheaply because of robotisation and digitalisation like the GrowFrame system, but differently.
Thanks to high intelligence technology, managing larger, more international companies will become easier, management skills will change, and the co-operation with suppliers and customers will become closer, it found.
Value Pests can also be dealt with earlier, more sustainably and more precisely, and the quality of the final product may also improve.
However, the potential value of this is difficult to estimate.
There are also potential drawbacks to robotisation and digitalisation, it found, including the growing dependence on large software companies, cyber risks, less flexibility, negative consumer perception, and less diversity of companies and products.