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Vertical farming: are things looking up for the future of agriculture?

There are some significant challenges facing the UK agriculture industry—such as labour shortages and the lack of post-Brexit EU Funding.1 One of the industry’s biggest challenges is the pressure to reduce its reliance on imported goods and adopt more sustainable land management practices.1

The most significant medium to long-term risk to the UK’s domestic food production comes from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity.2

Vertical farming offers a unique alternative to traditional farming approaches, independent of seasonal and other market-led forces. The global vertical farming market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 10.3% by 2028.3

What is vertical farming?

Also known as controlled environment farming, vertical farming is the process of growing crops and food produce in stacked vertical layers in a controlled environment.

Usually, this means crops are grown on a horizontal surface, but there are multiple layers. However, depending on the crop type, some vertical farming systems grow plants directly onto a vertical or almost vertical surface.

What are the benefits of vertical farming?

Vertical farming has gained significant attention in recent years as a potential solution to some of the challenges facing traditional agriculture. As well as being sustainable and requiring fewer resources—less land, water and labour—this method also allows the capacity to grow crops all year round.

Vertical farming operations have been established across the country, with the UK’s biggest vertical farm in Essex opening for business earlier this year.4 Around 46% of all food consumed in Britain is imported, so the vertical farming method hopes to significantly reduce the country’s carbon footprint by growing it here instead.5

  • Year-round production—controlled conditions make vertical farming efficient and effective under any given climate. They’re not susceptible to the impacts of storms or extreme weather events in the way conventional farms are so can produce seasonal crops all year round.6
  • Less energy consumption—fully automated indoor farming systems are powered by the sun rather than LED lighting, crops are not reliant on fossil fuels or other less ideal energy sources.7
  • Reduced carbon footprint—indoor farming brings food production closer to the consumer, reducing the mileage travelled.8
  • Less water waste—farmers can use 98% less water and 99% less land. They can produce crop yields of 240 times that of traditional farms through year-round rolling or perpetual harvest.6
  • Fewer use of pesticides—vertical farms reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides, as the controlled environments used in vertical farms help to prevent pest infestations and disease outbreaks.5 Because the plants are grown inside, there’s no danger of fertiliser run-off polluting nearby rivers either.

What are the challenges of vertical farming?

One of the biggest challenges with vertical farming is the energy costs, the industry is extremely vulnerable to increases in electricity prices. The technology required to set up an indoor farm is expensive, with substantial upfront costs. Production costs can be reduced by using renewable energy sources, such as solar panels.

A premium vertical farm can cost as much as 750% more than a basic glasshouse. While glasshouses cost in the region of £400 to £1,000 per square metre, a vertical farm is likely to cost a minimum of £2,000 per square metre or £3,000 per square metre for a high-tech, closely controlled system.9 However, there are several government funding programmes available to support starting, growing and expanding a vertical farming business.10

Further to this, while it is possible to grow almost any crop in a vertical farm, it is currently only cost-effect to grow leafy greens such as lettuce, small vegetables and fruits and herbs that are high value and quick to produce.11

While there are challenges associated with vertical farming, it offers a promising future for sustainable agriculture, presenting numerous benefits over traditional farming methods.

Contact our farming experts for help and advice about insuring your vertical farm.

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