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UK: Industrial Horticulture is at a crossroads – new report urges expansion not decline

Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) within industrial-scale greenhouses could make the UK a significant exporter of horticultural produce within ten years, a review of the sector – published by Defra and produced by Camrosh Ltd and the Institute for Manufacturing Engage, University of Cambridge – has concluded.

The Foresight study compared the relative gains, costs, feasibility, and scalability of current and future ‘industrial horticulture,’ including greenhouses and vertical farms. It comes at a critical time for the sector.

CEA has huge potential to increase UK self-sufficiency. It produces 10 to 20 times the volume of food from the same land footprint as field-grown crops while using less than 10% of the water resources required for open field growing, and there is potential to further improve productivity.

The report proposes that the UK has both the climate and the renewable energy resources to be a major global player in low-carbon CEA food production. This vision is supported by reports of a decline in field production in other geographies – for example, an EU report predicts Spanish tomato production will fall by 20% by 2030 – indicating that an expansion of domestic CEA would contribute to food security.

However, the sector runs almost entirely on natural gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP) and has been badly hit over the past three years by the increase in fuel prices and by a shortage of labor. This has led to production falling to its lowest level in 30 years, with many producers scaling back out-of-season growing or shutting down permanently.

Dr Bernhard Strauss is Director of Research at technology strategy consultancy Camrosh. In collaboration with IfM Engage, University of Cambridge, he is a co-author of the report. He comments: “The report comes as the CEA sector is at a crossroads on the journey towards net zero. The UK has a choice: to actively support and build a CEA sector, or risk losing ground and seeing the industry fall into decline.”

The researchers consulted a multi-disciplinary group of experts and stakeholders across the CEA sector, and the authoritative report provides an in-depth analysis of the current situation and the opportunities offered, as well as the challenges of a number of alternative and renewable energy supply solutions. In addition, the role of various agri-tech innovations in the sector for reducing energy demand is discussed.


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