14 April 2020

From Greenfields to Brownfields, The Future of Food Production


by Andrew Laxton

When my kids tuck into their favourite Mexican food, it’s often the unsung hero that brings all the flavours and textures crashing together into one harmonious mouthful of yumminess – with fajitas, it’s all about the peppers. 

The same can be said of Insalata Caprese. While the cow’s milk mozzarella (there are no Buffalos on Capri), over-ripe tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil are classic ingredients of this antipasto recipe, it’s the addition of fresh basil that always seals the deal. 

So who would have thought peppers and basil would be the star performers in this modern-day era of revolutionary farming techniques but they are and the results could shed some light on how to eliminate future food shortages?

As the global population continues to grow, with an estimated 10 billion mouths to feed by 2050, food production will also need to increase by 70%. This means the farming and food industries need to become much more sustainable and that will require significant changes to the overall model of growing, processing, transporting, storing and selling. 

Leading this charge is a new breed of young farmers but these aren’t your average wellie-wearing, Land Rover-driving types. These entrepreneurs are engineers and agronomists and they are transforming disused airfields, shipping containers, city centre roof tops and derelict air raid shelters into farmable real estate to grow high-yield and nutrient-rich foods, 365 days a year. 

One particular sector, vertical farming, is growing faster than Jack’s proverbial beanstalk and is forecast to be worth £9.84 billion by 2026, according to reports presented to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture. 

Also known as controlled environment agriculture (CEA), the soil-free technique controls all four elements of the growing process – lighting, irrigation, fertigation and climate. Enthusiasts argue this method offers dramatically improved crop yields per square metre while also lowering environmental impact by reducing food miles. With the improvement in renewable energy technologies, vertical farms can also mitigate their energy usage through the installation of solar panels and wind turbines.

A great example of another technique, controlled indoor farming, being brought into the modern age and adapted to a commercial scale can be found in Chichester, West Sussex at Tangmere Airfield, a key site for the RAF in the Battle of Britain. Steeped in history and untold stories of heroism, Tangmere is now making headlines as the UK’s largest source of sweet peppers. 

Dirk Houweling purchased the disused site in 1988 to launch his family business, Tangmere Airfield Nurseries, which now produces 68 million peppers a year from one million pepper plants grown from state-of-the-art, climate-controlled glass houses covering a 105-acre site. 

The business is focused on sustainable and environmentally friendly growing methods. A hydroponic growing system provides nutrient-rich water, via a dripper, directly to the plants’ roots. Any excess water is then collected, sterilised and recycled using a closed-loop irrigation system. Even old crop, biodegradable twine and plant clips are gathered at the end of each growing season and chopped up for compost and used by local farmers. 

Jones Food Company in Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, is another UK innovator at the heart of disruptive farming and uses a retrofitted cold storage facility to produce 400 tonnes of baby leaf salad and herbs a year. Demonstrating vertical farming has advantages over the more traditional form of horizontal farming, online supermarket giant Ocado has put its money where its mouth is and invested £17m in JFC. 

In the West Country, Grow Bristol built a mobile farm featuring hydroponic farming systems inside a shipping container on disused land, offering an opportunity for public education on sustainable crop production and connecting urban communities to food.

My personal favourite is located in an old air raid shelter in London, 33 metres under the busy streets of Clapham, where Growing Underground is producing fresh micro greens and salads all year round in a pesticide-free, climate-controlled environment using the latest hydroponic and LED technology.

And there are untold others now following suit in inner cities around the UK, each with their own unique story and innovative approach to urban farming. 

So when the policymakers next meet in Davos to consider whether the world’s food system, blamed for causing both obesity and malnutrition, can be fixed, here’s some food for thought: it can and indoor farming will be leading the way.