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Control Union launches vertical farming certification

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Certification body Control Union UK and the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) have collaborated on the launch of a new certification scheme for sustainable indoor farming. 

  • The certification scheme will assess vertical farms against a set of tailored sustainability criteria to boost the industry’s adoption of best practices. 
  • Sustainability certifications are attractive to stakeholders, but their benefits must balance out the costs of compliance. 
  • Vertical farming certification could be crucial in ensuring the industry maximises its contribution to the sustainable agricultural transition. 

Control Union UK and the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) have introduced the Sustainable Indoor Farming certification to ensure that the key environmental benefits of the industry, such as its absence of pesticide and reduced water consumption, are being realised. 

The programme has been developed over several years, with the involvement of stakeholders across the industry. The AVF will own the programme, while Control Union will act as the sole certification body. 

How will the programme work? 

According to Control Union assessment manager Henry Ernst, the Sustainable Indoor Farming certification will be applied on the farm level, rather than providing an upstream certification to suppliers of specific technologies. 

Ernst explains that this was a deliberate decision, “to assess and to audit the decision-making of the producers because that’s what it boils down to in the end. We’re essentially trying to keep the scope of the certification programme completely tight to the producer and the things that are in the immediate control of the producer for the time being.” 

“Obviously this is the first iteration and we’ll be looking to expand. It’s going to be a living programme so eventually we will end up incorporating other things or making tweaks as new technology arises or as new considerations come to light”, he adds. 

Participating farms will be assessed against 10 core criteria, including their energy efficiency, waste management, resource consumption, spatial footprint, substrate type and crop protection measures. These metrics were determined over a series of stakeholder consultations that sought to identify industry priorities that were not already covered by existing sustainability schemes. 

Both start-ups and established vertical farming companies can apply for the certification process, which begins with a desk-based review followed by an in-person visit to the site.

Once the initial certification assessment has been passed, producers are subject to an annual ‘surveillance audit’ that assesses any significant changes or progress towards addressing any nonconformities. Every four years, a full recertification audit will be performed. 

The benefits of sustainability certification 

Voluntary certification schemes are often promoted as solutions to enhance the sustainability of agricultural commodities. Such standards outline best practices that improve sustainability, with the resulting certification expected to provide economic benefits for stakeholders by differentiating their produce in line with upstream demand.  

Drawing from the example of organic farming certification, Ernst explains how Control Union hopes to drive farmers’ adoption of its latest scheme: 

“Hopefully they see that this label kind of provides added value to their product right now, in the form of product differentiation and, in a sense, a justification of the higher price point that is required for vertical farming produce. We hope that to them, on top of improving sustainability practices they are able to have in a way an eco-label that’s tailor-made for vertical farming. That sets the industry apart but also promotes good practices within the industry.” 

As such, sustainability certifications help consumers to make more informed purchases. As consumer demand for sustainable products continues to rise, this will increasingly contribute to business’ ability to gain a competitive advantage. 

Indeed, survey research by Carbon Trust suggests that around two thirds of consumers thought more positively about brands that could demonstrate a lower carbon footprint, and believed that its product carbon labels were a good idea.  

Banks and investors, meanwhile, are seeking to align their decisions with social and environmental goals. Sustainability certification can therefore provide a way for businesses to communicate their alignment, potentially gaining access to lower cost capital. 

 “We still set a bar for sustainability, we’re very mindful of avoiding greenwashing and anything of that nature. So hopefully to the farmers, or to the producers who are making an effort, this is an opportunity for them to showcase that, to communicate that to the consumer and to set their product apart on the shelves when entering new markets”, says Ernst. 

Certification comes at a cost 

Compliance with sustainability certification schemes does, however, demand more time, money and resources from producers. Certification for organic produce, for example, can cost thousands of dollars depending on the volume and variety of products, with the audit process often taking several months. 

The new vertical farming certification is not immune from these costs. As Ernst explains: “There’s a cost associated with audits. It’s very much audit dependent you know for what the scope is, how many sites, what exactly is being audited and the complexity and associated workload that’s involved in auditing that. And, as with pretty much any eco label out there, there are some licensing fees associated with bearing the ecolabel on the product packaging.” 

“Unfortunately, it is a business, but we are mindful of the industry. It’s a nascent industry and there’s not necessarily huge budgets set aside for this kind of expense, so we are mindful of that. We’re not that naïve”, he continues. 

Vertical farming is a diverse industry

Research suggests that global food production will have to increase by 70% by 2050 in order to accommodate projected population growth. Novel agricultural solutions such as vertical farming are expected to play a crucial role in enabling this expansion while minimising its environmental impact by using less land, water and other resources than conventional farming. 

It is important to acknowledge, however, that vertical farming is an extremely diverse industry, meaning that its sustainable benefits can vary significantly. Some set-ups may consume larger amounts of energy, for example, which will also have differences in associated carbon emissions, depending on whether or not it comes from renewable sources. 

This exposes vertical farming investments to a range of ESG risks, in addition to their economic uncertainty. As investment in the industry continues to increase, there is a clear need for thorough assessments of the risks and opportunities associated with different operations. 

Vertical farming certification for the transition to sustainable agriculture 

Certification programmes could be crucial not only in enabling these assessments, but also in using them to encourage best practice within the vertical farming industry so that its benefits can truly be realised.  

As Ernst describes: “There’s a pretty significant amount of fragmentation within the industry. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of sharing of best practices or sharing of information at all. What we hope is that these certifications cast a spotlight on the positive practices involved and motivate others to do the same, or might even inspire and show what’s possible in terms of how many production realities are out there.” 

“As we iterate the programme, we’re going to be seeking a higher and higher level of environmental sustainability. So for production facilities within the programme itself, we hope that this also continues to raise the bar for them”, he adds. 

Control Union is well-positioned to provide such a service, having previously developed certification schemes for both regenerative farming and plastic-free products, among others. “There’s no reinventing the wheel here, we’re just identifying the need for something and hopefully providing something of value”, Ernst says. 

He reports that the programme has already received some interest, but that the organisation has not set any specific targets for its adoption as it believes this should not be the priority. Rather, its ultimate goal is to ensure that vertical farming can fulfil its potential in driving the transition to sustainable agriculture. 

Ernst concludes: “I have a great belief that vertical farming and controlled environment agriculture is going to be a part of the future. I think that to already start pushing for sustainability within that sector before its necessarily as established as conventional agriculture or fishery, is a real positive step. It’s an important check point in the industry to already be expecting and demanding sustainability as it grows.” 

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