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Vertical farming: food security, quality, purity—podcast

Audio-Vertical farming: food security, quality, purity—podcast

Understanding the concept and impact of vertical farming.

For this Vitafoods Insights podcast episode, Johnny Stormonth-Darling, Technical Director at UK Urban AgriTech, shares insights on:

  • What is vertical farming
  • The role vertical farming plays in ensuring food safety, food security, food quality
  • Vertical farming’s role in increasing the chances for more potent bioactive ingredients
  • How vertical farms help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)


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Johnny Stormonth-Darling
Technical Director at UK Urban AgriTech

Vitafoods Insights Podcast

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Podcast Transcript:

Vitafoods Insights: 00:05 Welcome to the Vitafoods Insights podcast. Join us as we explore the latest science innovation, helping the global health and nutrition industry connect, develop and progress. Today's host is Natalia Franca Rocha, content producer.

Natalia: 00:23 Hello, and welcome back to another Vitafoods Insights podcast episode. I'm Natalia Franca Rocha and today we'll be exploring the role of vertical farming, food security, quality and purity. I'm joined today by Johnny Stormonth-Darling, who’s Technical Director at UK Urban AgriTech (UKUAT). Thanks for joining us Johnny.

Johnny: 00:40 Hi, Natalia, pleasure to be here.

Natalia: 00:42 To get us started, can you explain to our listeners, what do you at UK Urban AgriTech? And what exactly is vertical farming?

Johnny: 00:49 Vertical farming is, as I see it, part of a broader category of controlled environment agriculture. Controlled environment agriculture is anything where you manipulate the environment of the plant, you basically can direct the weather to varying degrees depending on which methods you pouse. So for example, a greenhouse would be considered a controlled environment agriculture. And vertical farm is a much more controlled, sometimes people call it total controlled environment agriculture, or TCEA. A vertical farm is essentially where you denser projects of crop by stacking up crops in layers. So I've decided in the field, you've got one acre of ground is one acre of ground. But in a vertical farm, you can take one layer of ground and then a few centimetres above that, you can have another layer, so each layer would have its own lights, and each layer would have its own irrigation system. And the environment that the humidity and the temperature and all the other important conditions would be controlled. So UK Urban AgriTech, we are a members organisation. We were trying to bring together all of the key players in the controlled environment agriculture industry in the UK. So we have members who are growers, we have members who are university researchers, architects, people who supply equipment like lighting, and that sort of thing, and nutrients and everything else. And we also have lots of just interested individuals who might be people who are thinking about starting a farm, people who are thinking about going into any of those disciplines within the industry. And within that, as technical director, I run a research and expertise working group, and in that working group, we essentially come up with projects that we think will be interesting. And we work on them together as much as possible, and, you know, as much as people's times will permit. And when that goes well, we produce some kind of output. For example, last year, we produced a kind of concept report on the utilising the empty office space, which obviously became available during the pandemic. And people were beyond there's still an ongoing conversation into whether or not how many people will keep working from home. Will there be lots of spare office space? and it was a bit of a cute little project, but it was a definitely an interesting one to do. And it was just nice to get the brain ticking around that kind of thing. And we're working on a few other things at the moment to produce similar. Even if they don't lead to anything that the world sees, it still means that a lot of our members are talking to each other and building relationships and hopefully just moving the industry forward.

Natalia: 03:39 Vertical farming seems to be very space efficient. And also super interesting to hear about UK Urban AgriTech and the projects you've tackled, especially the one you mentioned to optimise urban working space. And also actually this week, the World Food Safe today celebration took place on the 7th of June, and the theme for this year was 'safe food now for a healthy tomorrow'. With this in mind, can you share with our listeners, the role of vertical farming plays in ensuring food safety?

Johnny: 04:07 So I think there are a few areas where vertical farming, all types of indoor farming can contribute to food safety. Primarily what the first thing that came to my mind was the fact that because you are completely self contained from the environment, you don't need to worry about pests and therefore you don't need to worry about pesticides, which will alleviate an awful lot of people's health concerns from that side of things. You have really well defined ingredients. So if you don't have to worry about land being contaminated or anything like that, in fact, you know, most of the water is largely recycled and that which isn't recycled ends up in plants. So, you talk the way about contamination in that way. Then I guess if you're thinking about healthier tomorrow, then that bleeds into all of the environmental intersecting issues. So you can have reduced environmental footprint. If you do your farming within a contained environment, then you're not leaking pesticides into the water by runoff. So that's protecting ecosystems and any food which may or may not be burning those downriver. And the other thing is it can, it can really help to accelerate research, because you control the environment, you can get many more crops during the year, because it can always be mid summer, or it can be any, any time of year or climate that you like. So a lot of the work in indoor agriculture, it's to do with food security, high things or adapting to climate change, for example, basically breeding new crops, or breeding more resilient crops for different environments, and environments that may come about after the climate has changed. Or just new varieties, which could benefit health. A lot of, you know, I can't remember the statistics, but the vast majority of the food we eat as a global population is very few varieties. And so there's a lack of resilience there. But also, there's potential to really enhance nutrition with either some of those staples or with other varieties.

Natalia: 06:13 That's so cool that vertical farming can help with food safety and minimise the use of pesticides, avoid contamination, and also increase resilience, as you mentioned, especially considering how food safety is considered to be everybody's business. But what about food security, you touch up a little bit and also food quality? Can vertical farming provide better food quality when it comes to the crops' nutritionals values?

Johnny: 06:37 Yes, it can. When you're controlling your environment, when you're very specifically defining what nutrients go in, exactly what the wavelengths of light, which are already shone on to the plants are; with this type of control, you can do some experimentation, establish what people refer to as a climate recipe. And using the climate recipe, you can really tune the nutritional content of plants, you can tune the way they look, the way they taste, you can do all kinds of things. Depending on if you are targeting a nutrition market, you can definitely optimise for that. If you were targeting just a restaurant market for flavour, you can optimise for that. And those two things might not be mutually exclusive. There's also a repeatability side of things. So if you can produce the same crop, the same flavour, the same nutrition content every time for downstream processing of the crops, whether it's going to any kind of just have the food or some kind of medicine, those vettering processors can be very comfortable, they're always getting the same ingredient, which might not be so true for something grown outside where the weather it can change the content. In terms of food security, ultimately, it's about not needing to worry about the weather. And as we all know, the weather is changing all over the world much more quickly than then we can adjust to. And on top of that, by the fact that you don't necessarily need to have your farms out in the countryside. Or they don't have to be grown in certain countries, you can have the food you need a grown basically next door to where it gets eaten, if you can afford the rental costs, environmental benefits come with that, like food miles, and everything. But there's also an economic resilience there. So more vulnerable people might be subject to unfavourable economic conditions, which makes it hard for them to buy fresh produce from other parts of the world or even other parts of their own country. So if we're able to expand indirect culture to the vast corners of the world, then then it then could be potentially very, very beneficial to more vulnerable people as well.

Natalia: 08:50 That's amazing to see how many benefits vertical farming brings. And considering the vertical farms can be found indoors in controlled environment. And I suppose as you mentioned, even at the heart of cities, it brings me to my next question, how does vertical farming impact supply chains and prices affordability to the end consumer?

Johnny: 09:08 Vertical farming is expensive. This is something we have to consider quite a lot here. I mean, I've said it's all very good up till now, but it's expensive and we have limited crops. So optimising the supply chains is really, really important. And actually, all of good efficiencies, that one that any business could engage in are actually kind of essential in in vertical farming to make a viable business. So, you know, when it comes to supply chains, if you're, you know, beside your customer or beside the next producer in the chain, that's incredibly helpful. And the fact that you've got a predictable crop coming out every few weeks rather than a volatile crop Once or twice a year, then that means the supply chain can be a lot more reliable and perhaps be a bit more redundancy in the supply chain, which you can perhaps minimise it when you've more confident that your crop is going to come on time and as expected. Other than supply chains, like the whole circular economic thinking is really important in the industry. Business does connect with supply chains, but you know, the way that a lot of people in the industry are talking now is that to really get the environmental benefits and to get the financial benefits for their business, it's very helpful to establish change process flows, whereby the organic waste from a farm or, or any any organic waste source could be reprocessed into perhaps into nutrients for a vertical farm. And then the waste from that could potentially be that transformed into something that can be fed to a mushroom farm. You can use anaerobic digestion or other sources of waste, to not only create power, but then the carbon dioxide from the burning of the digestive gas can be fed back into a vertical farm to enhance plant growth. So because of the financial difficulties with indoor farming at the moment, it's actually been in a really generative space for lots of interesting thinking about how to minimise supply chains and other aspects of less environmentally intensive practices.

Natalia: 11:25 Interesting, I suppose that is also the big potential as well in prolonging the 'best before date' of products when they're being somehow sorted locally shortening this gap for crops' products going from farm to fork. And also with the COVID pandemic, consumers are more aware of their well being and mental health. So the demand for botanicals, for example, has drastically increased as people turn to nutritional interventions. So can you share with us some insights on the quality and purity level of ingredients extractions, when comparing vertical farming to conventional agricultural methods? For example, does vertical farming increase the chances for more potent bioactives?

Johnny: 12:04 With the precision with which the plants can be grown, with the repeatability, you know, once you have figured out what conditions you need to get that nutritional content you want, then you can just keep repeating that same process over and over again, and, and you don't have to worry about wheather. So I think that's it's incredibly important. And it's really, really useful in that industry. Belief in medicine, indoor farming games have been used for quite a long time. And I'm sure there's probably a lot of cannabis growers out there that could tell you about that to just reliable climate recipes as well. There is an additional advantage, I suppose, with small or large controlled environment farms, where you can have the production of your ingredients that you have to grow, you can actually have that directly beside your processing section and your packaging, and really minimise that distance. And you could potentially even grow your, if you have a botanical mixture of ingredients where you would otherwise be sourcing ingredients from all corners of the world. In a vertical farm, you could feasibly grow them all in the same space, and then mix them together on the same site much more efficient, much more reliable, and more environmentally friendly.

Natalia: 13:24 There seems to be so many advantages to embracing vertical farming practices that you've mentioned. But looking at the future, what would you say is the future holding for food production and vertical farming when it comes to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals?

Johnny: 13:38 So the first thing to say is that as good as it all sounds, it's probably only ever going to be a small part of the agricultural mix. I mean, that might change. And, you know, for example, cellular grown meat or something could be considered controlled environment agriculture, that we haven't really had that conversation with anyone yet. Maybe it will have more impact if you include that sort of thing. But certainly, I mean, I was just looking at the SDGs again, before this, and it hits most of them. Obviously, you've got the hunger, which is food. So it's directly related to that, although there is definitely work needs to be done to make it more cost effective. But that can happen. And like I said at the beginning, a greenhouse can still be controlled environment and even partially vertical if you design it in a clever way. And there are some interesting developments going on to making cheaper vertical farms using inflatable components, that kind of thing and some have been deployed in refugee camps and things like that around the world, so that is moving along. So that directly affects the poverty SDG and the good health SDT. You know, even in developed countries, there are nutritional deficits, which could be addressed by vertical farms, growing just key ingredients which in in local communities and getting them out into the shops there, potentially even giving them away or supplying to hospitals, that kind of thing. SDG number 12, responsible consumption and production, that's big, you know, you're with indoor farming, you are using much, much less water, it can be recycled, round and round again for months, without having to add anything else. So in water stress regions, that's really helpful. And you can source nutrients from sustainable sources as well, that's not done that much at the moment, but people are working on it. There's some interesting companies around the world who are working on that. And ultimately, it is a responsible form of production, because you are not interfering with the environment, you are leaving the fields there ready to be rewilded if you want or to grow, perhaps grow food outside, but in a less intensive way. So it takes some of the pressure off external environment. It feeds directly into the sustainable cities as well, um, because you're suddenly bringing food going back into the city. you know, we've had a lot for a long time. There have been a few rooftop greenhouses kicking around, but the more spare space you can use in the city for food growing is definitely helpful there. Education, we have members in our organisation who actively engage with the schools and help to provide an interesting application to support learning, it's really helpful, just by the fact that these these farms are not polluting outside directly, that can be completely eliminated. And the only one that really are energy and decent work, because the financial imperatives of vertical farming are largely because of energy and employment. There's a real push now to increase automation in the industry, because it's, it's the biggest cost, which is a shame, because it means this industry will probably never deliver quite as many jobs as a new industry could. So that's a shame, but seems to be essential. I think the environmental benefits probably outweigh that, given that farming employs very few people in developed economies anyway these days. And with the energy, there's a huge amount of work. The conversation around energy is really heating up, everyone's realised that it's essential to justifying the validity of this industry. And everybody who's in this industry actually wants to address it, because that's kind of why they all came into this industry with an environmental conscience. So most vertical farms now, they will have one of these renewable only suppliers, and possibly quite a lot of on site renewables like solar and wind, and anything else that they happen to be situated beside. And there are plenty of interesting, cool locations you can adopt, such as putting a greenhouse on top of a warm building to use that waste heat. So there are lots of efficiencies available. But it largely depends on where you are. But hopefully with the improvements in LED lighting technology, the energy consumption will go down and go down. And as your government's incentivize more renewables into the grid electricity mix, then that will mitigate these issues. To a large extent. I think that just about covers the SDGs. Obviously, it affects life below water, life online as well, because they're all they're all interconnected these things. So I think if we hit quite a few of them there, and that's probably going to impact all the rest, hopefully.

Natalia: 18:37 Well, what a nice way to wrap things up. Understanding more about vertical farming has been of really great benefit for our listeners. So thank you so much Johnny for sharing your insights with us today. Thank you also for our audience for tuning in.

Johnny: 18:50 Thanks Natalia.

Natalia: 18:51 For more content from Vitafoods Insights, make sure to check out our website on the link available on the shownotes. And if you do like the show, make sure to subscribe and follow the vitafoods insights podcast. Feel free also to recommend the show to a friend that you think would enjoy it. That's it for now. Thanks, everybody. And we'll see you soon.