A traditional UK farm has partnered with Zimbabwean vertical farming start-up Ro-Gro to combine convention with innovation for sustainable agriculture.
- The partners will combine conventional agriculture with vertical farming approaches to address the contradicting challenges of producing food while reducing their environmental impact.
- Agriculture accounts for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but food production will have to increase by 70% to feed the projected population of 2050.
- A synergistic approach to the agricultural transition would help to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but will depend on the integration of political and economic support.
G H Dean & Co, a family-run farm in Kent, has joined forces with Zimbabwean vertical farming start-up Ro-Gro in a bid to reach net zero by integrating new technologies into its traditional agricultural practices. The goal of the project is not to replace G H Dean and Co’s current operations, but to strengthen them through sustainable synergies.
The challenges of the agricultural transition
Agriculture is responsible for 11% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and around 24% globally. Its transformation will therefore be crucial in delivering the transition to net zero. As stated by the UN Environment Programme, the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “business-as-usual is not an option”.
The agricultural sector cannot simply be scaled down or eliminated, however, as global food production will have to increase by around 70% by 2050 in order to feed the growing population. As the impacts of climate change, such as soil erosion and extreme weather conditions, become worse, it will be even more difficult to produce enough food.
Indeed, unprecedented heatwaves in Europe have already reduced summer crop yields by 8-9% in 2022. Such a decline in food production could push food prices up in what is already a fragile economy, with price inflation compounded by geopolitical events such as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
With responsibilities for both food production and sustainable resource management, farmers are facing a combination of interconnected challenges. It is imperative that they lower their environmental impact, while also producing enough food to avoid global food insecurity and socio-economic disaster.
As summarised by G H Dean & Co’s chairperson Michael Bax: “What we all have to remember about farming is that it takes place in the natural world. It’s absolutely vital that we find the right balance between food production and conservation in the environment. The emphasis is now on environmental protection and the sustainability of agriculture.”
Emerging approaches, such as vertical farming, have been championed as a key solution for sustainable food production. Vertical farms require just a fraction of the water, energy, inputs and land consumed by traditional farming, and can produce crops on a year-round basis.
Despite the promised benefits of vertical farming, the industry has struggled to expand due to its high costs and technological complexity. According to Cambridge Horticultural Engineering & Construction, vertical farms only reach commercial viability at a minimum size of 5,000 sqm. The estimated cost of setting up such a facility is £10-15 million.
Although investment in vertical farming is on the rise, the time it will take to bring the technology to scale, it will not single-handedly solve the contradicting pressures of the agricultural transition.
Sustainable synergies in the agricultural sector
The partnership between G H Dean & Co and Ro-Gro aims to find synergies between various systems, including orchard and arable farming, sustainable land stewardship, renewable energy and controlled environment technologies.
A portion of the farm’s horticultural produce will be grown in vertical container farms, using aeroponic technology supplied by Bristol-based LettUs Grow. The system involves suspending plant roots in the air and irrigating them with a nutrient dense mist, significantly reducing both water and fertiliser consumption. It will allow the farm to produce climate-resilient crops throughout the year.
The small amount of water that is used by the container farms will be provided by G H Dean & Co’s planned rain water harvesting systems, while the growing media and waste plant material produced by the vertical farming will be composted to make sustainable fertiliser for arable fields.
As vertical farming replaces a portion of the farm’s horticultural production, any land that is freed up will be used for rewilding projects that improve biodiversity and enable carbon sequestration. One of the projects planned so far includes rewetting an area of land to create wetland habitats for wading birds.
All of the farm’s operations will be powered by renewable energy, with plans in place to increase the current solar panel capacity and acquire a battery storage system. The farm’s produce, meanwhile, will be sold locally and distributed by electric vehicles, thereby addressing the transportation emissions associated with conventional food supply chains.
Ultimately, the project will enable two distinct farming practices to come together through a sustainable agricultural business model. The two companies acknowledge that their scheme could still be improved, but they believe that they are making significant progress.
“The two businesses are undoubtedly complementary. All farm businesses have got to achieve Net Zero within a relatively short space of time. The learning curve that we’ll tackle with Jason [Ro-Gro’s founder] and with Ro-Gro is going to play an important part. Between the big scale business and the vertical farm, that’ll get us there”, said Bax.
“We believe that for the future of farming to be sustainable, it must be collaborative and take a holistic approach”, adds Charlie Guy, chief executive and co-founder of LettUs Grow.
A systemic approach to the agricultural transition supports the UN SDGs
It is widely acknowledged that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will only be met with a holistic perspective that identifies the synergies and trade-offs between different targets. Several of the SDGs, including targets for zero hunger, climate action and responsible consumption and production, are directly relevant to and dependent on the agricultural transition. Other goals such as good health and wellbeing or clean water, are less directly associated but similarly interconnected.
G H Dean & Co and Ro-Gro’s collaboration serves as a prime example of how a systems-wide approach to the agricultural transition could support the integrated achievement of the SDGs. Although the partners’ work is a promising start, a truly systemic approach must also be supported by political and economic systems.
Whether this support can be realised remains the key question. Indeed, a lack of systems thinking has been identified as a critical failing in the UK’s efforts to meet the SDGs.
Some promising measures have been introduced, such as the Sustainable Farming Incentive – which subsidises farmers that divert some of their land for improvements in water quality, climate resilience and biodiversity.
On the other hand, however, the Conservative Government seems to be limiting the development of synergistic solutions with its opposition to the installation of solar panels on agricultural land.
This has proven to be a point of controversy, with many arguing that the expansion of solar capacity onto UK farmland could help meet the country’s renewable energy targets, support the surrounding ecosystems, improve farmer incomes and boost the yield of certain crops. Without Government support, however, such synergistic solutions will not be adopted at scale.