It is no secret that the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has brought widespread disruption to the global supply chain stemming disastrous food shortages and rising prices. In the aftershock of the pandemic, it is clear to see that the global economy and infrastructure is more fragile than we realise. Evidently necessary measures need to be put into place to help strengthen the food supply chain in preparation for any future crises.
Since the dawning of COVID-19 many UK fruit and vegetable growers are investigating new growing methods to increase outputs and ensure supermarkets and grocery stores have a consistent accessibility to important resources to provide the population.
National Statistics (2018) show the UK relies on receiving almost half (47%) of the national food supply from overseas nations, with the highest value of imports (£11.1B) arriving in the form of fruit and vegetables. Originally, the theory behind such a diverse network was to enhance food security through trading with stable nations thus allowing for a constant source of provisions. However, the sudden impacts of global lockdown have proven otherwise.
The overbearing dependence on imports paired with a surge in demand for fresh produce has proved the importance of local farming. With a lack of labour in the UK, the automation of farming and harvesting seems to be an inevitable and welcome solution.
Brits have always cautiously questioned the sources of supermarket produce, and even more so since the arrival of the pandemic. With the newfound need for contactless delivery and harvesting, Vertical Farming systems seem to be the answer to the issue.
The UK relies on the global food network due to the seasonal temperate climate, counting on nations with optimal growing conditions to keep staple fruit and vegetables on supermarket shelves, however climate is not a problem in the realm of indoor farming.
Vertical farming systems allow growers to produce in a fully controllable climate, safe from the natural elements such as wind rain and frost, meaning the variety of crops now able to be grown in the UK is increased significantly. Additionally, the secure environment results in zero pests and invasive bacteria, which allows the grower to provide organic pesticide free produce, which paired with an automated growth and harvesting system will allow for minimal human contact, something heading the agenda in the current crisis.
Indoor farming systems also address another key UK issue: a dwindling availability in useable farmland. Vertical farming systems can be implemented into disused buildings or on barren land such as barns, car parks and warehouses, provided there is a steady power and water supply. Although it may look smaller than your average outdoor farm, a vertical system can equate to 4-6 X more growth surface than your standard glasshouse or polytunnel area. 1 acre of vertical farm on average produces 4-6 acres depending on the crop density and cycle duration.
Since the arrival of the virus, major cities across the planet have experienced less smog and a reduction in pollution levels. Growing vertically can act as a major contributor too: Although many media outlets have written of indoor farming negatively due to its energy usage, the reduction in other aspects of pollution and waste conservation have not been as widely reported. Its local production and harvesting of crops reduce the amount of ‘food miles’, meaning a decrease in the grower’s contribution to the global carbon footprint. Research has found that vertical farms lower overall CO2 emissions by 67-92% when compared with greenhouses.
Vertical Farming systems allow produce to grow with 70-95% less water required for normal plant cultivation. Taking lettuce as an example: open-field production requires 250L/kg of lettuce and greenhouse systems consume 20L/kg. However, vertical systems come in at a minimal 1L/kg of lettuce, with the only water extracted during the growth cycle being that of the plants consumption. Any leftover water is recycled back through the filtering system and re-introduced to the irrigation.
In response to the pandemic thriving nations are realising the benefits of urbanised farming, identifying Vertical Farming technology as a response to the widespread food shortages. Singapore, one of the most affluent Asian countries, have been quick to adopt indoor and rooftop farms with aims to locally produce 30% of the nation’s food by 2030. Singapore law official Ang Wei Neng has recently stated that during the coronavirus outbreak, "it would be wise for us to think of how to invest in homegrown food" realising that Vertical Farming can act as a safety net in times of drought and crisis.
In a recent study, the University of Sheffield expressed that despite the pressure on land to build homes and roads, there is more than enough urban land available within UK cities to produce an ample, and more importantly, sustainable quota of fresh produce.
Although the world has been slow off the mark to implement an effective amount of Vertical Farming systems, large-scale UK distributors such as Ocado are already including indoor farming into their business models, sharing the feeling that their hyper-automation and promise of diverse locality will soon see the technology embedded into the global food supply chain.
Bridge Vertical Farming partner with Urban Crop Solutions to provide hi-tech automated solutions which include the likes of container farms, research facilities and bespoke vertical farming structures to cater for individual needs.