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Blog: Sparking interest in community vertical farming

Prof Katherine Denby from the University of York is leading a key area of research for FixOurFood, developing a business model which focuses on indoor vertical farming under controlled environmental conditions. This blog tells us more about this innovative hybrid business model

Vertical farming is a sector on the rise. It involves growing fresh produce on walls or in stacked beds – these can be outdoors where the climate permits, or indoors under natural or controlled lighting conditions. Plants are typically grown without soil on matting and irrigated using hydroponics or aeroponics. In hydroponic systems plant roots are submerged in nutrient solution (often with cycles of submergence) whereas aeroponics uses technology to spray the plant roots with a fine mist. Aquaponics combines hydroponics with aquaculture to provide fertiliser to the plants from fish waste.

Indoor vertical farming will not replace existing agricultural methods for food production but has much to contribute to developing a food system that delivers healthy, affordable, accessible diets from a healthy planet and supports a thriving and equitable food economy. Vertical farming systems significantly reduce the water use for production; water is recycled in the system and directly applied to plant roots. The indoor farm is protected from the weather and can deliver produce all year round. Often farms are located close to food businesses that will use the produce, or consumers who directly buy, greatly reducing the distance food needs to travel and helping support localised supply chains which can be more resilient in the face of global shocks, such as Covid 19, or significant changes to international trade as we have seen with the UK’s EU exit. Localised production and supply chains also promote the local economy; money is spent locally and the vertical farm can stimulate local enterprises such as food processors and retail. Shorter supply chains impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions too – a recent analysis (EDGAR-FOOD*) demonstrated that the GHG emissions associated with food transport, cold chain and packaging were considerable (~5% total emissions each) and what’s more, have increased since 1990. Reducing food waste in all parts of the supply chain is a vital component of sustainable agriculture with the level of control in vertical farming meaning minimal loss during production, and the short growing cycles from controlled lighting giving farms the flexibility to adapt to changing produce demands.

A major component of agriculture’s GHG emissions results from the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser (the manufacturing process causes significant CO2 and N2O release). Vertical farming technology greatly reduces the use of synthetic fertiliser along with little or no use of agri chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides. However, the often cited drawback of vertical farming in controlled environments is the high energy use (per kg of produce) for lighting and climate control. The GHG emissions associated with an indoor vertical farm depend on the LED lighting efficiency but most significantly on the source of energy being used (renewable versus non renewable). With renewable energy sources, GHG emissions from vertical farming can be significantly lower than traditional greenhouse horticulture production in many countries.

Vertical farms are popping up around the world and York is no exception – we have recently started Grow It York, a vertical farm located within a shipping container in Spark York, a Community Interest Company (CIC) in the centre of York. We want Grow It York to empower the local community around fresh produce – reducing transport, waste and packaging of fresh produce for local food businesses, increasing access to quality nutritious food, providing educational opportunities and engaging the community in building a sustainable food system. We are using Grow It York for more than just food production; to explore how we best integrate vertical farming into urban communities for social, economic and environmental benefits.