Could shoppers soon be picking their greens from an urban farm housed in supermarkets?
Bristol start-up LettUs Grow is on a path to make this a reality. Its vision is to place vertical vegetable farms that grow in cylinders into retailers, where plant roots are nourished with a nutrient-rich mist.
German company Infarm is also looking to make its move into the UK market this year, after installing its vertical farms in over 50 stores in Berlin.
LettUs Grow was selected as one of six businesses to be part of John Lewis & Partners latest retail innovation programme. In January, it also won almost £400,000 from Innovate UK to lead a project to increase food resilience and security in the face of climate change.
It has designed a patent-pending aeroponic system that has shown the growth rate of leafy greens, salads and herb production increases by over 70% compared to existing solutions. In aeroponics, instead of using soil, plant roots are suspended in a nutrient-dense vapour, which allows crops to grow all year rather than relying on seasons. This system also delivers faster growth rates than conventional hydroponics, consistent and predictable yields, and a 95% reduction in water usage versus open-field farming.
Everything from lettuce to kale, watercress, red cabbage and microgreens has been grown by the company, which has a system set up in a disused railway in Bristol. No pesticides or herbicides are used.
Jack Farmer, co-founder of LettUs Grow, said customers would prefer to pick their own salad in a supermarket, rather than reaching for a plastic bag of it.
“I think it really stems from the way people see the retail experience going in the future,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today. “With the rise of Amazon and other online retailers, the retail experience has to become much more experiential. You really re-engage with the food system and the provenance of our food.”
He added that the urban farming systems could reach the high street this year or in 2020.
“Our search was for those entrepreneurs who might dare to think differently about the future of retail,” commented Peter Cross, customer experience director at John Lewis & Partners. “Recent years have seen seismic changes in our sector, with a new benchmark in customer expectation every time they shop. Shops simply have no option but to inspire and delight customers – offering both fantastic products and personalised seamless experiences.”
Pilot farms, food miles and waste
A recent round of private investment also raised close to half a million pounds for LettUs Grow. Charlie Guy, co-founder and managing director of the company, said the funding would help accelerate bringing its innovative products to market by building one of the most technically advanced facilities for indoor growing in the world.
“The global agri-tech industry is very exciting right now, all stemming from the necessity to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of food production,” he commented. “We are fielding enquiries from all around the world from food producers and farmers who want to experience the benefits of our technology across a growing range of crops.”
The money keeps rolling in for the company too. This year, it won Vodafone’s Techstarter awards and is using the £45,000 prize money to launch several pilot farms in greenhouses and research centres, before working to scale nationally and internationally.
Wanting to address the current global problems that are affecting the world’s ability to feed itself is a major goal of LettUs Grow. By 2050, humanity must increase food production by 70% to feed over 9bn people. Existing methods of agriculture will not be enough sustain this burgeoning global population, with 25% less farmland, degraded soil quality and an ever more unstable climate, explained the company. It adds that the UK uses over 17m hectares of land for farming – which is over 70% of total land mass.
“Alongside this, most ‘fresh’ produce is imported out of season, often travelling hundreds of miles to reach consumers and resulting in colossal waste throughout the supply chain,” said a LettUs Grow representative.
However, the company acknowledged that the technology is still expensive and would not be suitable for all farming and food production.