For as long as traditional outdoor crops are exposed to ever-volatile climates around the globe there will always be variations in agricultural yields. However, agriculture is currently benefitting from a sustained period of technological experimentation, with increases in precision farming and controlled environment agriculture. Although agriculture seems destined to always be a rural sector of the economy, many of the new techniques being developed mean that that farming is no longer limited to rural communities.
It may feel like there will never be any room or need for farming in urban areas. However, it’s not correct to assume that there’s no undeveloped land to grow food on – for example, it’s estimated that 47% of land in London is vegetated green space. Growing food closer to the population that eats it might provide a good solution to some online delivery fulfilment challenges.
Examples of techniques with potential applications in urban areas include:
A technique which allows plants to be grown in mineral solutions under LED lights 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, leading to year-round crops. Its precision reduces costs associated with over application of chemicals seen in traditional farming, helping to protect the environment and is widely accepted as being significantly more efficient in water usage (claims of up to 70% in some cases). This is particularly important given the water footprint of agriculture.
Vertical farming systems can be placed within a wide variety of structures from warehouses, to shipping containers, allowing farming to take place in the busiest of cities, all year round and in controlled environments, therefore leading to greater productivity.
The benefits lie in the vertical farming method. Produce is grown indoors under LED lights, with a plant’s roots typically suspended in nutrient-rich water or mist. Temperature, humidity and light is carefully regulated within the sealed environment, and more plants can be packed into a space, on racks that can be seven storeys high.
While yield per square metre, low water consumption and lack of soil or pesticides have long been touted as the method’s main selling points, another one is becoming increasingly important: a guaranteed, year-round supply situated right where it is needed.
Previously abandoned underground areas are now becoming opportunities for entrepreneurs, such as Growing Underground which works 33 metres below the streets of Clapham in an old air raid shelter. Farms being located underground offers numerous benefits, from control over the environmental conditions, to the enhanced precision over application of water and other additives, decreasing the risk for the grower.
But are these innovations just a fad or inevitably merely a niche activity? A significant amount of investor cash says otherwise. The rapid rise of companies using this technology have caused excitement within the industry, particularly in the USA with Plenty, BrightFarms and AeroFarms all raising money in recent times. Investors poured over $700m into agritech companies in 2017, up from $233m in 2015, with Plenty’s $200m investment being the largest to date. Plenty plan to invest in building 300 vertical farms either in or near top ranking Chinese cities. And Shanghai has announced a 250 acre agriculture district within the city, specifically to grow crops to feed the local population.
The UK is also seeing interest in farming from overseas investors, including YesHealth Biotechnology, a vertical farming operator from Taiwan committing to set up an £18m operation at the National Agri-Food Innovation Campus in York, to act as its European Headquarters. Other operators are active in Bristol, Newcastle and Leeds.
Let’s not get carried away though. Conventional UK agriculture produces around 15 million tons of wheat each year so it seems unlikely that city farming will ever match this. This technique is most likely to be used on smaller higher margin crops such as fruit and vegetables, especially those that are most expensive to import. However, with a interest in local produce and concerns about ‘food miles’ and product traceability, we think we’ll see many more urban farms by 2040.