Vertical farming, not just feeding the future?

17 Jul 19 | Charlie Merry

Whilst food security is rarely a consideration for the planning system, it could increasingly be, as real estate and food production are inexplicitly linked due to their reliance on the same commodity, land

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Vertical farming? It might sound a little sci-fi, however the industry is more developed and relevant to the UK than one would first think. Vertical farming utilises hydroponics, the method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in water, often in greenhouses or inside using specialised LED lighting. Doing so delivers higher density and yields, in a controlled/sterile environment with less reliance on seasonal weather and reduced water consumption compared to conventional farming.

The UK’s population is projected to hit 70 million by 2030, with 92.2% of the population expected to live in urban areas, which will increase demand not just for land, but also food. However, the UK’s food production is not self-sufficient; it is currently 61% self-sufficient in all foods and 75% sufficient in indigenous foods, with 70% of the UK’s food imports coming from the EU.

Despite approximately 70% of the total UK area being utilised for agriculture, demand for housing and infrastructure has led to commentators such as the University of Cambridge to claim that the UK is running out of land for food and that we face a potential shortfall of 2 million hectares by 2030. The impacts of climate change cannot be ignored either, with extreme weather posing a threat to both domestic and international production. Also, increasing uncertainties around the outcome of Brexit and international trade deals with unstable non-EU countries also pose a risk to food security.

Vertical farming could also contribute towards unlocking land for strategic urban growth, in a future where all agricultural land may have an allocation protecting it, given its collective role for national food security. It also has the ability to diversify employment uses, bring new employment opportunities and provide alternative uses of underutilised spaces in our cities.

The indoor farming market is growing and is projected to increase its total global market value from $23.75 billion (2016) to $ 40.25 billion by 2022. Recent examples include: AeroFarms who recently raised $100m in its latest funding round led by Ingka Group (the parent company of Ikea); online supermarket giant Ocado announcing a £17m investment in the sector and Growing Underground have also started selling their produce in supermarkets across the country.

Whilst food security is rarely a consideration for the planning system, it could increasingly be, as real estate and food production are inexplicitly linked due to their reliance on the same commodity, land. It may be some time before they clash, but in an unpredictable future we need to think strategically and initiate discussions around vertical farming and its role in the planning system now, to mitigate the impacts of population increase, climate change and global trade insecurities in the future.

Charlie Merry Planner,Planning

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