How can government policy help boost vertical farming in the UK?
Food security and supporting farmers in the UK are issues that are becoming more urgent every year. Our dependence on importing food because of rising costs and climate issues is far greater than it should be, writes vertical farming company LettUs Grow on their blog.
For a while now, we have been talking about the potential benefits of using controlled environment agriculture technology to help support food production in the UK. Indoor farming allows us to grow all year round, whatever the weather, and there are huge environmental benefits that come with growing closer to the consumer, from reducing water use to removing the need for pesticides. Soilless irrigation systems, such as aeroponics, also take pressure off our already degraded soils and can improve the growth rates and health of the crops themselves.
But how much difference can innovations such as vertical farming actually make unless they are easily integrated into our existing agricultural networks and schemes at an impactful scale?
We’ll see the benefits of combining controlled environment agriculture (CEA) technology with our current food supply methods far sooner with public approval and the correct legislation from government bodies.
In order to fulfill its promises, vertical farming must be able to transition from being novel technology into becoming an established sector that has been incorporated into the UK’s farming standards and initiatives. Here are a few ways government policy could help boost the presence of vertical farming in the UK.
Vertical farming is still an alien concept for many people, including farmers. Many people still don’t understand what it is, how it works, or what the benefits are. Boosting the visibility of CEA will help the transition from a novel technology to an established part of our food systems. It will also encourage farmers to try CEA by softening the risk of adopting a brand-new technology.
Increasing the visibility of vertical farms could come in many different forms – whether that be putting more urban farms into areas where many people will see them, such as in supermarkets, giving more time and space to discuss them in the media, or by offering opportunities at tradeshows and exhibitions. Government-funded projects and endorsements can help create and boost these types of opportunities.
Dedicated strategies to encourage academic, industrial, and community collaborations would help to explore the environmental and commercial benefits of growing different crops in these settings. Funding bodies such as Innovate UK have been invaluable in their support of developing agritech solutions. Research programs allow growers to explore where controlled environment agriculture is best and commercially suitable and for which crops.
In the public sector, there is room for many more initiatives that link local producers with public bodies, such as schools, to improve livelihoods and nutrition. Similarly, projects such as our recent delivery of a container farm at HMP Hewell can have benefits to people’s wellbeing, skills, and access to growing food. These also allow new technologies to be trialed and for the benefits to be explored on a smaller scale, to begin with. Encouraging policymakers to look out for these opportunities would benefit both the industry and the wider public.
We’ve reached a point where there now needs to be financial support not just for research but to help increase the amount of people using this technology commercially in order to improve our food systems for both growers and consumers.
The role of policymakers is to maximize the value returned to the public, and in recent years a lot of work has been invested in recognizing the principle of “public money for public goods” within environmental grant giving and support services.
Since many controlled environmental agricultural systems now have a measurable environmental impact, they should be seen as environmentally friendly machinery: existing grants and funding that encourage farmers to buy environmentally friendly machinery or tech should also include technology such as indoor or container farms. These incentives could also come in the form of tax relief or subsidies for food production methods that reduce carbon or projects that serve deprived areas.
It’s also worth noting that supporting existing farmers in diversifying – allowing them to grow all year round with consistent income – could reduce farmers’ dependency on the loans and grants often used to stabilize their income.
We are currently lacking legislation and standards for vertically farmed produce. The industry needs set quality standards, data standards, and training standards in order to mature, and there is space here to do so as we move away from EU regulations. Currently, vertically farmed produce cannot be marked as organic as it can be in the USA – and whether or not it should be is up for debate, but these are certainly the types of conversations that we should be having when setting our own farming standards.
Training & jobs
We need to recognize the role of indoor farmers in the future of food production. And this is not to say that an indoor farmer needs to be a role separate from existing agricultural jobs, but there should be an opportunity for education and upskilling of farmers, as well as offering training programs for young people. Accessibility to agriculture can be difficult for those not from a farming background or for those living in urban areas – vertical farming can help to improve this by creating farming environments within and around cities.
As well as coordinating better training for growers, it is also important to make sure that there are secure and available job opportunities to find work that will be stable and pay fair prices. There should also be financial support or relief in times of crisis.