While vertical farming (VF) enjoys opportunities and rapid growth—bringing the sector significant investment, hype, and hope as a potential provider of global food security—widespread concerns remain about energy costs, taste, nutrition, and VF’s adaptability to a broad range of crops. Will the VF sector expand to fill a niche or burgeon to successfully feed the world?
Vertical farming—a rapidly growing sector of indoor agriculture—primarily produces hydroponically grown greens and herbs near a densely populated customer base. The sustainable agricultural practice gets its name from stacking multiple rows of growing plants, thus creating vertical indoor towers that cultivate far more produce per acre than a traditional farm.
Automated climate controls provide optimal growing temperatures, artificial lighting, and nutrient-dense water inputs that allow for a steady, year-round yield that can be produced and customized with fewer workers.
One UK Firm Has Its Eye on Europe
One UK-based vertical farming brand, Vertical Future, focuses on manipulating light to improve taste, plant longevity and plant quality. To further achieve its goals, the company is closely monitoring the European region’s regulatory framework and developments to plan its next move in this advancing area of agriculture.
“The vertical farming sector is still very much in its infancy relative to where it can and will get to, both in terms of market share as a percentage of total fresh produce production and in terms of capital investment,” says Jamie Burrows, Founder and CEO of Vertical Future, describing the status and potential of vertical farming in the company’s domestic market— the UK—and in wider Europe.
“This being said, the amount of growth within the sector itself is quite astounding—with growth being driven by many factors, including population growth, environmental factors, and wider supply chain and health concerns as a result of COVID-19,” adds Burrows.
As technological innovation in vertical farming evolves, growth in the European sector has come mostly from the rapid development of small-scale vertical farms which generally focus on servicing local populations with higher-margin crops.
“There has been less ‘large-scale’ activity in the UK and EU vertical farming sectors, but this has been mainly due to a less developed or sophisticated investor ecosystem, especially when compared to the US, where the focus is on growth, initial public offerings, and special purpose acquisition companies, irrespective of evidence (or lack thereof) of profitability,” Burrows says.
The Vertical Farm is an Ecosystem
Having operated its own farms since 2016, Vertical Future’s Burrows says, “We quickly realized that there is a massive lack of innovative thinking in this sector regarding both hardware and software solutions.”
Focused on environmental renewal from the beginning, Vertical Future started by learning how to grow crops and how to service different customer types. Innovation grew from seeing the vertical farm as a “system”—an integration of various parts—with energy utilization, utility, and space optimization being front and center. Vertical Future built on this concept, investing heavily in developing hardware and software solutions of its own that are suitable for the mass market. Vertical Future is rolling out these technologies across the UK today within different customer archetypes.
Burrows described, “Our plans are also far greater, with a number of large-scale partnerships set to be announced this quarter.”
Scaling Vertical Farming to Meet European Market Demands
There are a number of challenges facing the vertical farming sector in Europe. According to Burrows, questions around the availability of capital, the lack of evidence of proven success over time, and the narrow crop focus, which is driven by technological and biological barriers, are particularly daunting.
“Evidently, like any new market, it will take a number of years, some large-scale successes, and probably many (smaller) failures to properly prove the market for vertical farming,” Burrows emphasizes.
Another challenge is meeting customer taste and quality expectations. A research study published in March 2021 details concern from Russian consumers surveyed about the taste and quality of vertically farmed vegetables.
Some respondents reported positive attitudes, perceiving vertically-farmed vegetables to be safe, tasty, and of good quality, whereas others considered them to be unnatural, less nutritious, bad-tasting, and even dangerous—potentially due to misconceptions or lack of knowledge.
Increasingly, vertical farming innovators are focusing on how to address consumers’ taste and nutritional quality concerns. Vertical Future does so by concentrating on the inputs needed to grow a plant.
To meet consumer expectations for taste and nutritional quality, Dr. Jen Bromley, Head of Plant Research and Development at Vertical Future, identifies three major factors to consider:
The quality and quantity of light provided;
The composition of the nutrients delivered to the crop and the mechanism by which these are delivered, such as hydroponics versus aeroponics; and
The crop variety.
Vertical Future’s plant research and development (R&D) team focuses on these three variables, among others, to understand how each impacts taste and nutrition and to make recommendations for which crops to grow and how to grow them.
Various industrywide approaches are being taken to improve taste and nutritional quality. “The critical aspect to being able to fully address these is a system that is sufficiently flexible to allow appropriate changes to be made to light and nutrient delivery,” says Bromley.
Regulatory Guidance on Organic Status Varies by Region
Questions exist within the European vertical farming community about whether or not regulators are allowing vertically-farmed produce to be certified as organic.
In the UK, the Soil Association is the primary certification body for organic produce. “At present, vertically farmed produce is not classified as organic since it is grown with hydroponic or aeroponic nutrient delivery,” Bromley says. In the UK, to be certified organic, plants need to be grown in soil.
“In Europe, the situation is similar with vertically farmed produce currently excluded from organic certification, as much of the certification is around the land upon which the crop is grown as well as the production method,” says Bromley, referring to European legislative guidance. “We are also told by colleagues in Italy that they are unable to certify vertically farmed produce as organic,” notes Bromley.
In the US, where growth in the soil is not a requirement for organic certification, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken a different view from that of the UK’s Soil Association. “In the US market, we see that vertically farmed produce is certified and labeled as organic,” Bromley says.
“However, what is important to realize is that organic farming is about production practices that seek to minimize the use of environmentally harmful agrochemicals such as herbicides and pesticides,” adds Bromley.
In Vertical Future’s R&D center, for example, the company has demonstrated that its technology can operate without pesticides or herbicides, even those that are certified for use with organic growing methods.
Maximizing Nutrition through Vertical Farming Inputs
Consumers and the farming community want to know what nutrients are in the water used in vertical farming, as well as how these nutrients are sourced and whether they can replicate or even surpass the nutrition present in regenerated soil.
“The nutrients we supply to the plants are exactly those that are needed and so the makeup of the fertigation (injecting fertilizer into irrigation systems) medium varies depending on the plant,” says Bromley. “The key three macronutrients are nitrogen, phosphate and potassium (NPK) and a whole host of micronutrients such as manganese, calcium, boron, and iron among others.”
The macronutrients and micronutrients used in vertical farming can be inorganic or organic in origin, reports Vertical Future. Inorganic nutrients are synthetic, artificial forms of plant nutrients or naturally occurring mined minerals, whereas organic fertilizers are derived from plant or animal sources and contain nutrients in a purely organic form.
To proponents of vertical farming methods, supplying nutrients independently of soil provides no downsides to the quality of the plant produced. “There is even the opportunity to improve the quality,” says Bromley.
For example, it is possible to supply mineral nutrients that are not typically available in regenerated soils that are important for human health. “One such mineral is selenium which has low bioavailability in soils but is readily taken up by plants if made bioavailable,” says Bromley. By providing selenium in a bioavailable form through hydroponics or aeroponics, it is possible to fortify plants with this and other minerals.
Sharing Knowledge for a Vertical Farming Future
Looking ahead, with the expected growth of vertical farming ventures throughout Europe and the world, vertical farms will collectively accumulate information, knowledge, and insights that can be shared across the international VF sector.
“The more farms we roll out, the greater the amount of data we are able to amass. Our view is that this data and associated learning will play a vital role in growing the sector in future years,” Burrows says.
*Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe is a freelance journalist and editor. Over the past ten years, she has reported for a host of publications, exploring the wider world and industries from environmental, scientific, business, legal, and sociological perspectives.