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It’s Time to Grow-up: Is Vertical Farming the Future of Agri-Tech?

What can we learn about Vertical Farming’s Impact?

In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at the growing practice of vertical farming and highlight a few of the changemakers who are making their mark on the agri-tech sector. 

With key insights into growing interest from investors, innovations that are shaping the industry and walking the tightrope of regenerative growth and emissions, we’ll see how Impact Founders can drive change and offer solutions to the climate crisis.

It’s Time for Change

As global leaders held discussions on the climate crisis at COP 27, the world population quietly grew to 8 billion people, as announced on Tuesday. Despite the promise of steps towards Net-zero and deals for green energy, the climate crisis is continuing to have a devastating impact on our people and planet.  

With 10% of the people on our planet living in hunger, it’s impossible to ignore that food insecurity is fast becoming a major impact of climate change. Not to mention the escalating effects caused by supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic, Brexit, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the cost of living crisis. 

We know that yearly discussions and promises alone won’t bring real change, we need to shift our focus to regenerative growth and that’s why we at Zebra Growth support the innovative changemakers that create the most impact.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. While we sit and stare at the news waiting for the next anxiety-inducing report on energy prices, pioneers in agri-tech are facing the threat of food insecurity head on using Vertical Farming techniques.

But with critics arguing that emissions are too high compared to traditional agriculture and rising energy costs, is vertical farming the future of agri-tech? Let’s take a look at what’s happening in the sector and some of the changemakers hoping to answer that question.

Let’s get Vertical

Vertical Farming (VF) is the agricultural process of growing crops in vertically stacked layers, maximising land space and potential crop yield. What makes the practice so fascinating (not to mention groundbreaking) is that the crops are grown indoors with no soil or sunlight. 

Techniques such as hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics are used to grow crops indoors using the method of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). CEA allows every step of the growing process to be controlled for each specific crop, from humidity, light, temperature and even CO2. 

Utilising a CEA indoors means vertical farms don’t need to rely on pesticide as the plants are grown in clean, monitored conditions, allowing farmers to grow nutrient-rich produce all while helping to restore the land typically used for agriculture. 

We’ve seen this for ourselves through our collaboration with IGS. IGS is an agri-tech innovator, revolutionising the sector with Growth Towers. Their system uses TCEA (Total Controlled Environment Agriculture) which removes all external variables to create a predictable and repeatable growing environment. This not only optimises yield but limits wastage. Their  groundbreaking work signals a much needed shift towards more regenerative practices!

Vertical farms can yield up to 10 times the yield of open-field farming of the same land area. Without the dependance on sunlight and unencumbered by harsh weather conditions, vertical farms can grow year round and still produce high-quality produce around the world. 

The practice is typically used to grow leafy greens, herbs and soft fruits, given their small size and large profit margins. Critics of vertical farming often cite this as a key reason that vertical farming can’t tackle food insecurity as vital crops such as wheat cannot be grown indoors given its size.

So vertical farming is an interesting project but it won’t yield true results?

This is simply not the case. Agri-tech innovators are already a step ahead of critics, as Amsterdam-based startup Infarm have successfully grown wheat indoors without soil or pesticides. The world’s first indoor staple crop is projected to have an annual yield of 117 tons a hectare, by comparison the average yield for the EU in 2022 was 5.6 tons a hectare. That’s one way to silence the naysayers!

Through vertical farming, Infarm was able to have 6 growth cycles in a year, compared to a single growth cycle with traditional farming methods – isn’t that incredible? 

While scaling such an operation will have its own set backs, Infarm believes that with the right innovations and improved technology, they will be able to increase their yield by 50% in the years to come. 

With hundreds of startups led by innovative changemakers working towards revolutionising the agricultural sector, it’s hard not to see the potential for vertical farming. 

Of course, a key benefit of vertical farming is allowing the land and resources used in traditional agriculture to replenish, giving us the opportunity to shift towards a regenerative form of open-field farming. At Zebra Growth, collaboration is at the heart of everything we do and the only way we can truly look to solve food insecurity is utilising technology, so we can complement traditional methods, not compete with them.

We are closely following new developments in the sector over the coming months and years and we are hopeful that innovation and tradition can drive progress. With developments across agri-tech enhancing the practice of open-field farming (such as the use of drones to detect disease in crops and limit wastage) we have no doubt that innovation and tradition will find a way to collaborate towards a better future.

But let’s imagine the potential that growing staple crops indoors gives us. Countries affected by drought, extreme climates, or where wheat has never grown in the past could become self-sufficient and thrive with direct access to staple crops. 

Our vision of a regenerative economy could be realised through these kinds of innovations in vertical farming working in tandem with open-field farming, and we want to do everything we can to make that our reality.

And the progress isn’t going unnoticed

Climate Smart Agriculture (such as vertical farming) was the number 2 in the top 10 Climate Tech Trends and Innovations for 2022. More and more investors are seeing the real world value of vertical farming. With the global market value of vertical farming expected to surpass $20.9 billion (USD) by 2029, it’s no wonder that investors are looking to VF startups to drive change. 

From cutting transport costs, mitigating supply chain issues, food waste and bringing nutrient-packed produce to urban areas, vertical farming is a vital investment for VCs looking to give their funding to sectors that promise regenerative growth with real impact and tackle climate change. 
From our own work with clients in the sector, including IGS (who raised £42 million in Series B funding) we’ve seen the excitement growing amongst investors for innovative and regenerative startups – it’s an exciting time for climate tech  changemakers!

That’s not all…

Early in 2022, London-based startup Vertical Future raised £21 million, in Europe’s largest ever Series A funding in the industry. What’s clear to us – and clearly investors – is the brand’s clear purpose and reach. We can’t ignore how exciting this is for agri-tech startups, vertical farming is starting to turn heads.

Vertical Future looks to empower their customers to grow produce sustainably and closer to the point of consumption, satisfying the significant need to reduce transport emissions and provide the freshest produce. This startup proves not only the importance of innovation in vertical farming but rather that VC’s are hungry for fresh and revolutionary solutions to food insecurity. 

Vertical Future not only grows food but 40% of their plants are produced for pharmaceutical purposes, adding yet another game changing potential for vertical farming. With the funding secured, they’ll now focus on scaling their operations across the globe.

Now that’s exciting.

In fact, in the UK there is growing demand for agri-tech startups. Just recently, a partnership was launched in Gloucestershire to promote growth and innovation in the sector. The partnership between food science and technology consultancy, Campden BRI; Hartpury University and College’s Agriculture Agri-tech Centre and Tech Box Park, the Royal Agricultural University’s Farm 491 and the University of Gloucestershire’s Countryside & Community Research Group (CCRI), aims to bring innovators and startups from around the globe to the county to share expertise and grow the already £1.5 billion valued sector. 

Gloucestershire has the highest concentration of fast growing agri-tech SMEs and a hyperfocus on agricultural education – we can’t wait to see where their innovations take us next! 

We, at Zebra Growth firmly believe that working collaboratively to support the vision of agri-tech startups is an essential step towards building a fairer, regenerative economy.  We all need to act now if we are to  protect our planet’s resources, and it’s great to see that local authorities are starting to notice this too!
And, thought leaders are starting to recognise the benefits of funding R&D in agri-tech as a means of limiting the supply chain issues that have disrupted food distribution these past few years.

Growing-up isn’t always easy

So, while vertical farming boasts a higher crop yield and has the potential to bring nutrient-rich food to urban areas, it’s not without its setbacks – what developing technology isn’t?

A recent article published in Nature Food looked at sustainability within vertical farming among other food system technologies. The Scandinavian team found that vertical farming had a ‘mixed sustainability’ as its greenhouse gas emissions were higher than that of conventional farming. 

What we found especially interesting (not to mention reassuring for our climate conscious changemakers) is that the report focuses on the energy used to run the farms and openly admits that the literature studied had a distinct lack of focus on the socio-economic sustainability of the practice – considering two of the three pillars of sustainability is people & profit, it’s a wonder why these key benefits of vertical farming aren’t considered in assessing its sustainability.

The report notes its own shortcomings, of course, and discusses vertical farming’s ability to reduce CO2 emissions through cutting down on transport as a theoretical practice, and we’ve already seen that vertical farms are being brought to urban areas. 

Vertical farming is not only limiting transport emissions but reducing food waste, all while bringing fresher, healthier food to people –  we’d say that’s pretty sustainable!

And let’s not forget about the regenerative benefits of closed-loop vertical farming. Compared to traditional agriculture, there is no chemical-filled water that has the potential to pollute the environment, and conversely the crops aren’t affected by contaminated water.

We’ve seen this first hand with our client  IGS’s TCEA, their fully automated water and nutrient dosing system ensures that the only water that leaves the farm is in the crop itself – this will do wonders in a future where water scarcity is fast becoming a genuine concern. 

The closed-loop process allows vertical farming to reach climates – and people – that would never have the ability to grow coveted crops.

A perfect example of vertical farming’s versatility is VeggiTech’s work in the United Arab Emirates.  In the Sharjah desert, the startup has cultivated 150,000 crocus sativa bulbs to grow saffron. Despite the turbulent climate, through vertical farming, VeggiTech estimates the first crop to yield around 5.5 kilograms of saffron – this may seem a paltry sum but with a market value of up to $3000 a kilogram, it’s sure to push innovation in the sector. Did we mention it was grown in the desert? It doesn’t get any drier than that.

With 90% of the UAE’s food coming from imports, having access to the spice close to home will have a massive impact on transport emissions. And this is just one spice, in one country. Imagine being able to bring vertical farms to vulnerable countries with limited access to water! Is this anything but a leap towards a regenerative, prosperous and fair future? 

Of course, we still live in the present and the cost of setting up and running a vertical farm can be pricey. 

IDTechEx’s 2020 report suggests energy to typically cost around 35-40% of the Operation Expenditure (OpEX) of a vertical farm and high energy output equals higher emissions. With energy prices reaching an all time high, for many critics the future of vertical farming is questionable – say it isn’t so!

As we’ve seen, this hasn’t slowed the appetite of investors in agri-tech, and why should it? The key to successful technologies is innovation and development, R&D from well-funded startups is pushing progress. 

Already developments in energy efficient LED lights has meant costs are being brought down. And let’s not forget that changemakers in agri-tech are constantly generating solutions to constantly improve the practice. 

Innovation is paramount to growing a successful and regenerative business. We’ve seen this firsthand with IGS. Coupled with energy efficient LED lights and their TCEA, growers can increase energy efficiency by up to 50% while reducing the overall cost – we can already see progress being made.

What’s even more promising, and often not being considered by critics, is the prospect of vertical farms being run on renewable energy. The topic has been in the minds of agri-tech visionaries as far back as 2018, when yet another vertical farm pioneer, OneFarm, found that vertical farms run on green energy have the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 70%. 

It seems to us that the energy costs and emissions of a radical technology such as vertical farming are but a symptom of the wider failures of our reliance on finite resources that are ravaging our planet. 

Closed-loop farming is only the beginning. It’s never been more clear that we need to shift towards renewable energy if we are to protect our planet and its people. With progress made every day, vertical farming gives us the opportunity to create a real impact on food insecurity and shifting towards green energy could yield limitless results!

It’s a great time to be a Changemaker

So, is vertical farming the future of agri-tech? The practice is growing fast and visionaries are surpassing setbacks whilst silencing critics. The process may not yet be perfect, but massive strides are already being made to future proof vertical farming. 

The practice will be essential in allowing land used by traditional farming methods to regenerate and thrive and the future of food security will come from a balanced collaboration between open-field and vertical farming. 

Socially-driven entrepreneurs are making their mark in the sector and with thought-leaders and investors ready to trust in the process, we’re thrilled by the potential that vertical farming brings to restoring balance to our world. As the sector grows, we must ensure that positive impact is at the heart of the progress.

We believe the real power of vertical farming comes from startups with a clear, driven purpose that will pave the way for progress and shift the business world’s outdated concept of profit at all costs. Those brave pioneers that understand the need to transform our broken system and build a brighter, regenerative and impactful future.  

As more changemakers rattle the business world with innovations in agri-tech, we can see real impact being made and we’re excited to be a part of it!

We have supported groundbreaking agri-tech startups to define their purpose and vision. Working collaboratively, we help to create ethical, regenerative growth that balances people, planet and profit. 

Without these visionary changemakers, we’d be stuck watching as greed and ignorance destroys our beautiful planet at the cost of its people and if that isn’t something worth growing-up for, we don’t know what is.

Let’s Recap

So, what do we know about vertical farming? The practice is making waves in the agri-tech sector and with the global market value set to surpass $20.9 billion (USD) by 2029, investors are looking to agri-tech startups for visionary solutions to food insecurity.

And with the ability to grow crops in even the harshest of climates, vertical farming has the ability to reduce transport emissions and bring the freshest, nutrient-rich produce to everyone around the globe. 

The process isn’t without its faults, with higher energy outputs and emissions, but the key to vertical farming’s success lies in visionary startups and we can already see the impact of advancements made to the closed-loop technology.

Through further research and a shift towards renewable energy, vertical farming can help restore balance to our planet and promises fair, regenerative growth that we desperately need.

But vertical farming is just one significant strand in the web of agri-tech. A driving force for change, its power comes from complementing traditional open-field techniques allowing a holistic approach to growth, with respect for our planet and its resources. 

Across the agri-tech sector we are stunned by the innovations of pioneers who, when working towards a shared vision, are building a future that benefits people, planet and profit. 

Looking for more?

Check out the Changemakers we’ve mentioned and some useful links below!

Are you driving to make change in agri-tech or needing guidance on regenerative growth?

We’d love to chat about how you can grow your business for maximum impact. We understand the need for real action and a shift towards impactful growth, that’s why Climate-tech is one of our key areas of focus.

If you’re keen to scale your own regenerative growth, why not reach out to Rae – there’s always a fresh pot of virtual coffee waiting!