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From micro-herbs to menthol and morphine: how far will vertical farms go?

Crops grown in large-scale vertical farm facilities are beginning to enter commercial food chains with the promise of continuity and consistency of supply, reduced food miles, and the need for fewer inputs.

But these benefits come at a price.
Tightly managed, high-care growing environments are expensive to build and run, so these facilities need to grow high-margin produce – ideally in high volume – to generate the necessary returns on investment.

With ambitious expansion plans and increasing global acreage in many of these facilities, this month, we are exploring the opportunity for vertical farms and controlled environment agriculture (CEA) to diversify into non-food crops.

Beyond baby-leaf salad
Innovative research spanning a range of crop species has demonstrated the feasibility of using vertical farming to produce field crops such as cereals, legumes, fruit, and even seed potatoes.

However, while it might be possible to grow food crops in such systems, the question remains about the commercial reality of producing them at scale in such facilities. Are there untapped alternatives that are easier to grow and where the returns could be even higher?

Harnessing plant metabolism
Plants naturally make a suite of chemicals that are unrelated to their nutritional properties but still hugely valuable to humans. Plant-derived drugs, for example, represent 5.5% of the global pharmaceutical industry, with a sales revenue of over £18 billion. 

Flavorings extracted from plants, including saffron from crocuses, vanillin from orchids, and essential oils from herbs such as evening primrose, all command a price premium over their synthetic – or fake – counterparts.

With a move away from a dependence on petrochemicals, there is an increasing focus on using sustainable alternatives for specialty chemicals, such as artificial flavor and fragrance molecules, as well as intermediates in manufacturing processes. Many of these are difficult – or impossible – to make synthetically.

So, what better production system for these complex materials than from the plants themselves?

Photo 6733532 © Bcbg |

Biofactories for non-food
Some plant chemicals are unique to individual species that are difficult to grow in broadacre because of their precise growing needs, their vulnerability to pests, or a lack of suitable agronomy. But under the right – and consistent – growing conditions, these plants can flourish.

Thanks to a number of state-of-the-art facilities across the world, vertical farming at scale is now a viable solution for the widespread commercial production of high-value molecules in planta. The controlled environment ensures stringent growing conditions and accommodates high-care needs. With the added benefit of automation and robotics to increase efficiency and minimize contamination.

Generating these kinds of compounds in a controlled environment would maximize outputs and ensure consistency. This would overcome a major barrier to their outdoor production and comfort regulators about the quality of the resulting material. Moreover, VF allows for nuances in growing conditions, where small changes can alter – and improve – the nature of the material produced.

Next steps
Discussions between vertical growers and food retailers are underway, with bagged salad and herb producers competing with broadacre growers and importers – and potentially between themselves – for market share.

We think it's time for serious discussions in the cosmetics industry, ingredient suppliers, perfumiers, and specialist chemical companies, as well as in the pharmaceutical sector, to consider larger-scale production of high-value chemicals in a controlled environment.

There will always be a place for baby-leaf salad and micro-herbs in vertical farms, but plants are much more than just food. We now have the technology to harness – and even enhance – this wealth of potential in a truly controlled way.

Members are invited to join AgriTechE's interactive BlogChat online session on April 25, 2 to 3 pm, where they will be discussing this topic in more detail.

For more information:
[email protected] 

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