Vertical farming and agri-tech appear to be taking off in the UK, with technological innovations that address many of the UN SDGs, and providing a home for the growing need for impact investment vehicles.
- Innovation Agri-Tech’s GrowFrame 360 aeroponic precision growth technology aims to improve vertical farming crop growth and yield.
- Vertical farming tackles the problem of malnutrition and hunger by enabling the year-round growth of food and vegetables, and eliminating climate dependency.
- By addressing 9 of the UNs SDGs, vertical farming can be a vehicle of impact investing that investors are looking for amid all the confusion over ESG investing.
Innovation Agri-Tech’s latest innovation aims to improve aeroponic vertical farming techniques, which uses 98% less water than traditional farming, and 30% less water than hydroponic farming.
While the upfront costs may appear daunting, ongoing technological innovation and development of scale in the market could reduce costs overtime, helping solve many of the food-related problems facing the world today.
UK-based agri-tech innovation drives vertical farming
Bracknell based Innovation Agri-Tech (IAG) has launched its latest innovation aimed at vertical farming, the process of growing crops on vertically stacked surfaces in controlled environments.
Called GrowFrame 360, it is an aeroponic precision growth technology which aims to improve crop growth and yield, using 98% less water than conventional farming, and 30% less water than hydroponics.
Aeroponics involves growing plants by suspending their roots in air and irrigating them with a nutrient dense mist, giving them greater access to oxygen. Hydroponics involves regularly submerging the roots in a nutrient-rich solution.
Although UK-based, IAG sees its technology being applied globally and has partnered with Co-Alliance, one of the largest agribusinesses in the midwestern US. It also claims to be the only UK company involved in vertical farming to be Red Tractor accredited.
Its role in boosting vertical farming also adds to its own sustainable impact claims – locating vertical farms in urban areas or close to consumption can eliminate emissions generated by the transportation of food.
Vertical farming appears to be on the rise in the UK, with the world’s largest such farm being built in Gloucestershire by the Jones Food Company, a supplier of hydroponic indoor farms, who claims to supply the country with a third of the fresh-cut basil it consumes.
Addressing nine SDGs adds to vertical farming’s impact appeal…
Indoor farming addresses some of the fundamental challenges being faced by conventional farming today – loss of fertile land to industrialisation, burgeoning population growth, and uncertain crop yields due to climate change.
The scarcity of water is also a major advantage being offered by indoor farming techniques (of which vertical farming is a subset), with both hydroponic and aeroponic methods offering tremendous savings in water usage.
This directly addresses the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on clean water and sanitation (Goal 6), helping preserve the precious 3% of water that is fresh water on the planet. Recapture and reuse of water, and zero contamination from fertilisers further add to this fulfilling this goal.
Quite obviously vertical farming helps eliminate hunger (Goal 2), while also providing decent work and economic growth (Goal 8) in both rural and urban areas. Its use of new technologies in lighting, automation and environmental control also fosters the development of industry, innovation and infrastructure (Goal 9).
Enabling cities and communities to become more sustainable (Goal 11), while also encouraging demand based production and distribution adds to Goal 12 (responsible production and consumption).
Fulfilling Goal 13 (climate action) and 15 (life on land) are inherent in its approach – changing the way food is grown to a more responsible process helps tackle climate change, while using less land and soil could also help revive biodiversity in many areas.
By providing a green and sustainable solution to growing food, vertical farming is also alleviating the burden on water, energy and transportation infrastructure, which fulfils Goal 17 (partnership for the goals).
… but may come at a high cost
While vertical farming holds a lot of promise, it does involve upfront costs that can be daunting. This relates largely to the investment in technology, equipment and expertise, which may also impact operating, or ongoing costs.
UK-based CambridgeHOK, a horticultural engineering specialist with an expertise in vertical farming, glasshouses and greenhouses, horticultural construction, and energy solution, provides an estimation of the costs involved, based on the size of the farm.
While it does not provide a breakdown between upfront costs and ongoing expenses, for a small farm of up to 500 square metres (sqm), CambridgeHOK estimates a cost of £1,200 – £1,400 per sqm, which would rely more on manual labour than technology.
Farms between 500 and 2,000 sqm could cost £1,400-£2,000 per sqm, may still require manual labour for sowing and harvesting, but use automation for watering and cultivation. The variation in cost would depend on the level of technology usage.
Large farms (2,000 – 10,000 sqm) could cost £1,750-£2,250 per sqm, being fully automated across all tasks and functions. The elevated use of automation and technology raises the level of capital, or upfront costs in large farms.
CambridgeHOK estimates a minimum size of 5,000 sqm for commercial viability, for which it estimates a capital investment of £10-£15 million.
As technology and innovation evolve, these upfront costs could decline over time. Addressing the nature of the problem, and the multiple SDGs fulfilled could also qualify vertical farming for favourable policy treatment in terms of taxes and investment.
Focused investing in vertical farming appears to hit the sweet spot for impact investing, which is increasingly becoming popular as investors seek sustainable investment alternatives to ESG funds, many of which face greenwashing accusations.