How vertical farming could benefit health as well as the planet

Dr. Laura Wyness explores the potential of vertical farming through the pioneering work of Intelligent Growth Solutions.

24 October 2019
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image credit: International Growth Solutions

Meet the Expert

Who: Dr. Laura Wyness

What: Independent registered nutritionist

 

Vertical farming is an exciting area of innovation with huge potential to produce a range of crops in almost any urban or rural setting. There are various systems currently being tested, often based in disused urban spaces such as a warehouse, underground or rooftop.

The energy requirements and costs to produce food in such systems, as well as the complex technology used to control some of these environments, still present a barrier to overcome. However, the Intelligent Growth Solution (IGS) system, currently being trialled in Scotland, is one of the companies leading the way in attempting to solve these issues.

How it works

IGS provides an environment in which all aspects of the growing environment can be controlled (light, temperature, humidity, irrigation, nutrition and even air composition). This means specific climates can be created to enable the grower to produce consistent, high-quality crops all year round, with greater yield and in less time than traditional systems.

“Our key innovations are in how we design, power and control LED lighting systems, ventilation and mechanical handling,” explains David Farquhar, chief executive of Intelligent Growth Solutions. “They enable us to create the weather and continuously monitor crop conditions. This means our systems will radically reduce energy and labour costs while delivering productivity benefits: yield, quality and consistency.”

Research on the impact of growing plants in the IGS system is still at an early stage with no published data available yet. However, preliminary findings appear positive and suggest it could impact on everything from nutrition to the use of pesticides.

More nutritious plants

Growing crops with enhanced nutritional content, especially nutrients of concern, such as vitamin D, folate or iodine, may be beneficial for some UK population groups. National Diet and Nutrition Survey data shows a downward trend in intakes of most vitamins and minerals in UK diets over the last nine years (Food Spark). Research between IGS and the James Hutton Institute, Dundee, has been exploring how different light regimes impact the nutritional levels of lettuce and basil with encouraging findings.   

Greater crop yields

Vertical farming has the potential to produce greater yields compared to growing in greenhouses. According to Farquhar: “Typically, a glass house is about 30kg/m2/annum, but with our facility we were seeing closer to 60kg/m2/annum (100% increase) for basil.” That’s before considering any wastage in the greenhouse environment due to, for example, disease, pests and stress on the crop from the climate. 

Faster growing time

“IGS typically achieves harvest weight/yield in 60-70% of the time it takes in a glasshouse. This means we can run up to 50% more growing cycles per year, with 100% greater yields,” says Farquhar. The growth of the crops can also be slowed or accelerated in response to demand changes in the market. Close communication between growers and retailers could help ensure product quantities reflect the consumer demand to help minimise waste.  

Cleaner crops

Growing crops within a total environment-controlled system enables control over plant disease and eliminates the need for pesticides. Crops can be produced to a very high standard of microbial safety. Time and money could be saved if, for example, salad leaves could be produced and packaged without requiring washing. However, this status is yet to be achieved. 

Reviving ancient varieties

The number of crop varieties produced in conventional farming is currently limited, with the varieties that grow reliably and are resistant to disease generally favoured, often over more flavoursome varieties. Vertical farming could enable heritage crop varieties to be produced more easily. Such varieties could offer attractive-looking fruits and vegetables with exciting flavour profiles as well as a rich history which may enhance the provenance story of products that incorporate them. 

What to look out for in the future

The National Farmers’ Union suggests that the vertical farming industry will have a multi-billion-pound value worldwide over the next few years. Research is helping advance our knowledge and understanding in terms of the farm design and sustainable growing conditions that will positively impact the crops growth and nutritional content.

The Knowledge Transfer Partnership with IGS and the James Hutton Institute “is starting to identify algorithms for the perfect growing conditions which can be formulated and shared digitally to ensure that other users are able to grow crops consistently, wherever they are,” concludes Farquhar.

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