September 22, 2022

Food system resilience with vertical farming

Emerging technologies like vertical farming are what the agricultural sector needs to tackle food system resilience issues head-on, what issues can be solved?

Written by
Callum Farquhar
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The past few years have shown just how vulnerable the UK’s food supply chain really is.  

Issues like climate change, the rising costs of living, the fallout from Brexit and the Ukraine war all have a big part to play.  

As a food-trading nation, the UK relies on both imports and a thriving agricultural sector to feed itself and drive economic growth.  

Only 50% of the food consumed in the UK is actually being produced in the UK. Two countries account for 69% of imports of fresh vegetables and four countries account for 44% of fresh fruit imports into the UK.

What happens when we can no longer rely on these imports or exports to feed ourselves and drive economic growth? Unfortunately, this is something we’re already facing.  

Supermarkets are already experiencing a reduction in food quality because of inflation, as well as droughts all across the UK and flooding across the world. This unpredictable weather is creating an unpredictable yield.  

The question is, how can UK farmers work towards stronger food system resilience? How can we reduce our reliance on exported goods, yet still provide food security and economic growth for the country?  

In this article, we will delve into why climate change, rising costs and the fallout from Brexit and the Ukraine war are affecting the UK's food system resilience. We will then look into how IGS can help farmers mitigate these problems, introducing vertical farming as a piece of the puzzle.

Tackling food system resilience head-on

The technology to tackle food system resilience issues head-on exists, solutions such as:  

  • Controlled Environmental Agriculture (CEA)—glasshouses, vertical farming;
  • Total Controlled Environmental Agriculture (TCEA)—IGS vertical farming Growth Towers;
  • automation and sustainable agriculture methods.

But before we can understand how these technologies can provide the solutions, we need to first understand why the issues are happening.

Climate change

We are experiencing a global food crisis.  

A food crisis that is being directly driven by the effects of climate change.  

According to Joe Stanley, a mixed farmer in Leicestershire and author of Farm to Fork: The Challenge of Sustainable Farming in 21st Century Britain, “In the UK we rely on our temperate, maritime climate for the way that we produce our food... but since 2017 we have had extremes every single year which have had a huge impact on my farm’s ability to produce food”. This has become extremely relevant as a drought was declared across England in August 2022.

Unpredictable weather, a direct result of climate change, is also destroying produce. Vernon Mascarenhas, who runs the fruit and vegetable wholesaler Nature’s Choice, has lost entire plantings of peas, sowings of broad beans, baby spinach, salad heads and berries because the heat had cooked them.

Extreme weather is leading to unpredictable yield‌s, resulting in lower sales and reduced overall profits for farms, during an already challenging time.  

Increasing temperatures are also making it easier for pests and diseases to grow, further threatening the healthy growth of crops. In fact, 72% of farmers are worried about the impact climate change will have on their ability to grow food over the next five years.

So, why not have a diverse range of supply sources from across the globe?

Food imports and red tape

Having a diverse supply of sources for produce would make the food system more resilient. Especially when UK consumer preferences and diets include a range of products we can't grow year-round ourselves.

So it’s easy to see why people would say, ‘we already import some of our food anyway, why can’t we rely on imports?’  

We already get a lot of our food imported. In fact, EU countries continue to be the primary source for food, feed, and drink imports which are essential to the UK’s food security.

Due to export restrictions and unpredictable weather, it’s becoming difficult and unsustainable to co-operate with the nations we traditionally relied on for seasonal and year-round fruit.    

Importing from already deteriorating land and relying on exported produce to drive economic growth is no longer viable.  

There are also issues around exchange rates when it comes to imports, affecting the competitiveness of imports, prices for raw materials and the profit margin for farmers.  

Finding innovative, dependable ways to feed our country is now urgent, but how do we ensure our own self-reliance whilst driving economic growth and food security? How can we still grow crops to suit our customers' demand for certain crops that can’t be grown here?  

Labour shortages and trade agreements

Migrant workers used to make up a substantial percentage of labour in the agricultural industry. But, since Brexit, recruiting from outside of the UK has become more difficult.  

EU citizens now need to fulfil requirements like wage levels and English language proficiency in order to receive a work visa. Resulting in workers opting to work in different EU countries for the same wage, without the hassle. These labour shortages are a having a big effect on the industry.

Brexit has also directly affected the UK's ability to import and export sufficiently due to new trade agreements.  

For example, farmers could previously sell any surplus from overseas operations to EU markets, but new Brexit red tape means they must now pay to dispose of this fruit. This is disastrous news for growing populations, who are already struggling with a lack of food. New regulations might mean further costs for farmers who are facing not only a market reduction but also extra operating costs.  

Trade restrictions enacted after the UK left the EU caused a 6% increase in food prices in the country between December 2019 and September 2021. Figures show UK businesses and consumers paid £4.8bn in customs duties on imported goods last year, up from £2.9bn a year earlier.

Since Brexit, some plants and produce imported from the EU have to go through extra plant health controls to mitigate pests and diseases entering the UK. These laws add additional costs, lengthen travel time, and reduce the freshness and quality of produce.  

Is importing worth the hike in prices for our consumers and sacrificing quality and freshness? Especially when we’re experiencing one of the worst living standards since the 1950s.  

Increasing gas and fuel prices

One of the last factors to address, which has directly affected the UK's food system resilience, is the increasing price of fuel and energy.  

Let's say we relied on our EU partners to provide us with our usual imported goods to ensure our own food security.  

We already know when produce travels vast distances it loses freshness, but shipping, cooling, and food losses along the way all contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Import transportation is also costly.

Oliver Scott, who manages 4,000 acres of farmland, told Farming UK the conflict between Russia and Ukraine had vastly driven up overheads for farmers across the UK. As the crisis unfolded, diesel increased to £0.85 a litre from £0.65. However, quotes today are up to £1.83 a litre.  

Rising fuel prices mean it's more expensive to transport across the globe, adding to rising prices to keep cold storage. One specialist said, “energy costs in cold storage have more than doubled in the last year”.  

So relying on long distances to market from countries across the world is not economically or environmentally viable. What other options do we have?

How farmers can harness IGS’ innovative vertical farming technology

British consumer trust in supermarkets fell by 20% over the last year as they adjusted to the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. What is more worrying is almost a quarter of shoppers admit to purchasing lower-quality goods to feed their families.

Our farmers are struggling too, with agricultural input costs rising 23.5% year-on-year in July 2022.    

We need to help farmers address these issues which can’t be looked away from anymore. Reducing reliance on imports is a solution. This can be done with a shift towards local growing.  

You’re probably thinking, ‘didn’t we go through all the reasons we can’t use our own land anymore?’ You’re right.  

If we want to successfully grow locally, farmers need to start integrating sustainable agriculture methods. With Total Controlled Environmental Agriculture (TCEA), we no longer have to worry about non-arable land and unpredictable weather we’ve come to expect in the UK.

TCEA solutions include a variety of systems which take a technology-based approach to agriculture. Ranging from simple hoop houses and shade structures to glasshouses and vertical farms. Or, a hybrid farm using multiple traditional and technological solutions.

TCEA and vertical farming

But wait, what is Total Controlled Environmental Agriculture? How can you integrate it into your current farming system? How can it support local growing if our land will no longer be viable and the weather will continue to be unpredictable? We’re about to answer all these questions, and more.  

Vertical farming is a type of TCEA, where plants are grown in completely enclosed conditions and stacked vertically in trays. It uses LED lighting to replace sunshine and closed-loop water recycling.

At IGS, our patented technology means you can control environmental elements, including lighting, water distribution, CO2 levels and nutrient delivery. We’ve designed it with economy and simplicity in mind.  

The platform also interacts with external energy sources to deliver optimised power usage day and night, with advanced power management to ensure energy costs are as low as possible.

According to Farmers Weekly, ‘If the UK were to switch to more sustainable farming methods, farmers would produce double the amount of fruit and vegetables.’ We’re not suggesting vertical farming is the only solution, but it is a step in the right direction and can complement your current systems.  

Because of the compact systems which operate indoors, food manufacturers can integrate a vertical farm into their current growing systems. Raynor Foods recently successfully integrated TCEA into their systems and it has led to improved food safety and traceability. This also enabled them to lower their environmental footprint as their food now has zero food miles, and lower packaging waste.  

With vertical farming systems you can grow to specialised recipes, which increases repeatability and increases quality. You can also choose the crop you want to grow, which increases control for the farmers, which can’t happen when importing from different countries.  

Vertical farming allows for faster, more controlled production, irrespective of the season. One acre of vertical farming can provide the produce equivalent to between 10-20 acres of conventional production.

With each tray having it’s own microclimate, you can also grow multiple crops or varieties in one growth tower. This gives you a lot of options for variety.  

Essentially, you can tell the system exactly what you want to grow, and grow it all year long, including produce which we couldn’t otherwise grow in Britain. Adhering to consumer needs and their health, whilst improving economic growth.

This reduces our reliance on imports and increases our ability to grow and purchase locally. Food security is increased, the environmental footprint is decreased and supply chain distances are decreased.  

So, to round off, integrating vertical farming into your existing systems allows you to:  

  • reduce reliance on imports;
  • grow locally;
  • ensure consistency and therefore predictable yield;
  • year-round production;
  • higher yield due to no cold storage;
  • removal of transport cost and carbon footprint;
  • disease free;
  • flexibility of crops;
  • improved economics.

A solution is available, are you?

Okay, let's go over everything we covered.  

Climate change and the fallout from Brexit and the Ukraine war, and inflation, are some shocks that UK farmers are facing daily. These issues are directly threatening the UK's food system resilience.  

UK farmers are finding it difficult to farm on their own land as the worst effects of climate change take charge.    

Rising temperatures and floods destroying the land of Spain, Africa, and Americas. Means we can no longer rely on our usual imports. This means food security is no longer feasible for the UK unless changes are made.  

Rising prices and controls from the fallout of Brexit and the Ukraine war are also further adding fuel to the fire. Farmers are struggling to produce valuable yield.  

Ultimately, the UK needs to reduce its reliance on imports from countries that are being affected by the worst of climate change. But how do we do so when our own land is not viable?  

A shift towards Total Controlled Environment Agriculture, is one of multiple solutions farmers should consider.  

So, if you’re a farmer or propagator who is:  

  • tired of the inability to control the environment;
  • sick of the rising costs of all inputs;
  • tired of unpredictable yields;
  • motivated to protect the UK's food system resilience.

Want to understand how vertical farming can work for your business? Then book a tour of our facility or a demo to see the towers in action. We’re excited to show you how this tech will boost the future of farming.

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