ARE AUTOMATED INDOOR GROWING FACILITIES THE FUTURE FOR FRESH PRODUCE?

Can growing veg in urban units scale up to meet demand, or is vertical farming a cottage industry focussed on leafy greens? Interest in Controlled Environment Agriculture is increasing internationally. In the UK autonomous growing systems have attracted funding from the Government’s Transforming Food Production programme and tens of millions are being invested in a new training and demonstration facility; but the industry still has many challenges.

 

Agri-TechE is hosting an event “CEA-lite”, which is discussing the drivers for innovation and investment with leading entrepreneurs, producers and investors on 10th September 2020.

 

Are new business models emerging?

Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-TechE says new models of food production are gaining traction. “Year-round intensive cropping of high value crops becomes economically viable if the technology can scale. The Transforming Food Production call focussed on big, inspirational projects and this will help de-risk the technology, particularly around automating the monitoring and harvesting, which are so problematic for open field production.” 

 

Jock Richardson of Growpura agrees: “A lot of operators have some great technology but to grow bigger means a linear (or worse) growth in costs. Scale up is vital but there are operational challenges of how we grow plants at scale and at low cost.”

 

Could scaled-up vertical farms create economic value in vacant retail units?

“I have seen repurposing of buildings for CEA but location remains vitally important”, says Investor Kiryon Skippen of Capital Agri International, “landlords of these buildings need to be realistic in their rent demands and preferably have a real interest in the vertical farming business and work with it, taking the longer term view.”

 

Jock has seen uplift in interest in localised crop production, but as their system requires cleanroom conditions, refitting an older building could be too costly. “We’ve been talking to major retailers and its clear there is real interest in the use of hydroponics (growing in water) to fulfil the demand for fresh produce but of course it has to be at a competitive cost and offer a reliable supply,” he says.

 

The company will announce funding for a large training and demonstration facility in the coming days, which may provide over 200 jobs and internships in the South East Midlands area. “A vibrant hydroponics industry is essential in the UK. On the licensing front there has been interest from a number of countries particularly in the UAE and Asia and also for non-food products which we are progressing keenly,” Jock continues.

 

Can the industry look beyond leafy greens?

This international interest is a trend David Farquar, of Intelligent Growth Solutions, has also seen. He says; “Interest from NW Europe, the Middle East and SE Asia is increasing the diversity of the food grown under secure conditions to reflect local diets and cuisine; encouraging the CEA industry to look beyond leafy greens and salads.  For example, we have seen more demand for roots and fruits over recent months and interest in re-localising as much of the food supply chain as possible.”

 

Phytoponics has recently raised £0.5M to develop its next generation deep-water culture modules that offer a sustainable more profitable alternative to hydroponics substrates, such as rock wool and coir, and the company has started a series of strawberry trials with Total Produce. CEO Andy Jones, says the funding environment is challenging but that investment is there for companies with the right solutions.  

 

He continues: “For growers, costs remain the big issue and one of the biggest is labour. New approaches need to give growers an economic advantage by reducing those costs.”

 

Are we swapping a labour shortage for a skills shortage?

However Max McGavillray of Redfox Executive says Brexit, and then COVID-19, have resulted in a marked increase in protected cropping roles as the UK adapts to a new normal: “We’re seeing individuals with plenty of cash establishing vertical farms but with very little experience in agriculture and foods, so there’s a real need for those with growth expertise in controlled environment agriculture.”

CEA Lite is an online event being held on 10th September 2020 15:00 – 17:00. Register your interest at bit.ly/ATEeEvents

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