Stack it up! The food industry is going vertical.

Vertical farming – also known as indoor farming – is the practice of food production utilising LED lighting instead of sunlight in a fully controlled, indoor environment.

21 February 2020

Shelves with lettuce in aquaponics system combining fish aquaculture with hydroponics, cultivating plants in water under artificial lighting, indoors

By Mariusz Bogacki, Researcher and Science Communicator, Edinburgh

Imagine for a minute that we could turn London’s abandoned warehouses and underground vaults into indoor farms, or that car parks and basements of inner-city supermarkets could be transformed into vertical farms capable of producing fresh greens on their premises…

You can stop dreaming now – that’s already a reality – Growing Underground for example, runs a farm in a converted Second World War Air Raid tunnel, 33 metres below Clapham in south London. And last year, Marks and Spencer installed vertical farming technology in one of its busiest London stores, with plans of opening another six facilities in 2020. There’s no doubt about it, vertical farming is going mainstream.

Vertical farming – also known as indoor farming – is the practice of food production utilising LED lighting instead of sunlight in a fully controlled, indoor environment. It relies on hydroponics, a subset of hydroculture, which is a method of growing plants utilising liquid nutrient solutions in a water solvent instead of soil. As a result, the crops can grow at optimal rates, independently of climate or geography. Indoor farms can operate in warehouses or modular units such as shopping containers with trays of vegetables and greens stacked up in towers as high as the ceiling.

Thanks to the advancements in artificial intelligence and big data, Agri-scientists are now capable of producing clean, flavoursome vegetables and greens at maximum yield. Another important advantage of vertical farming is that it is local, and doesn’t rely on the sometimes costly and unsustainable transport industry. Reducing the food miles also means no additional pesticides needed to make the food last long journeys.

It’s worth pointing out that indoor farming isn’t a new thing – the term has been around since the early 20th century. However, the concept is currently enjoying a revival thanks to developments in technologies such as robotics, big data, artificial intelligence and… space farming. Yes, vertical farming comes from outer space! Well, kind of. During the last century’s space race between the USA and USSR, the competing superpowers started developing space farming programs to be able to sustain their astronauts’ food requirements, resulting in the first prototypes of controlled environment systems capable of producing crops using nutrient solutions and artificial lighting.

Undoubtedly, growing clean and tasty food independently of geographical location and increasingly unstable climate, is very appealing. However, indoor farming remains a rather small-scale enterprise. The potential for addressing the growing pressures of food production around the world remains low. Critics point out that rising property prices in cities such as London will prevent development of any cost-effective large scale, inner-city farms. Vertical farms are also only capable of growing a limited variety of plants such as lettuces and herbs and rely heavily on large electricity consumption. Nevertheless, it seems it’s only a matter of time before these pitfalls are overcome, and inner-city farming starts stacking up.