Indoor farming - the future?
According to the sustainability charity WRAP, almost 1 in 5 lettuces grown in the UK go to waste. In general, fruits and vegetables have the highest wastage rates. But in a warehouse in Scunthorpe, Jones Food Company director James Lloyd-Jones is taking a less traditional approach to growing his produce. For one thing, the whole operation is inside, and you’d be hard pushed to find some soil. James took Adam Murphy on a virtual tour...
James - It looks exactly like Willy Wonka's TV room. It's large, white rooms with white apparatus, with white light that comes through over the crops. So it's very spaceship-esque. So the crops... our largest facility is over 12 metres high, and they are on carrier trays that get moved around the facility as a crop grows, and it allows for the crops then to go from seeding, to germination, to growing period, back to being harvested, and recleaned, and seeded again. So it's a big moving machine that you would be immersed in.
Adam - Immersed in farming that looks like a spaceship? That sounds fun to me. The Jones food company is a hydroponics lab that's currently growing things like herbs and dill. And since hydroponics is a word I first heard on Star Trek, the future feeling is fitting. But what is hydroponics?
James - Hydroponics in its simplicity is growing without soil, using nutrient-rich water. Hydroponics isn't new, it's been around since the Aztecs. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were hydroponic. And the 1965 Pan-Am used to have a hydroponics facility where they would land to refuel on their longer journeys.
Adam - So if there's no soil, and you're inside, which means there's no sunlight, how do you grow things in that?
James - I'm not going to say it's a simple way of growing indoors. There's lots of nuances, but it does take away elements that you would find in greenhouses or field-grown, but that does still provide us with other challenges. Which would effectively be: controller lighting; nutrient patterns to optimise the plant's growth throughout its life; temperature; wind; and humidity. Effectively we go from a seeding onto a substrate, into a germination room for a couple of days, and then that goes onto the racks, which then move from one end to another ready for harvesting as the plant grows throughout its life; and then it runs through automated harvesters, and then the crop goes in one direction and the operators that were used to transport the crop go the other, ready for cleaning and reseeding. To replicate lights indoors we've effectively got 2.8 metre long LED lights which cover the trays in a very uniform manner, so the lighting is similar across all the crops.
Adam - Well then, you can grow crops, and you can control the conditions. You can even do things like grow strawberries all year round. But how does that help with problem of wasting food?
James - The way this combats food waste is you can plan how you crop, effectively. If your customer is going to make 11 million sandwiches a week and they need X amount of produce in tonnage, you can seed and grow and produce in a very controlled manner all the way through the year, to reflect the, say, 11 million sandwiches a week. So we're not having to then oversow or undersow; everything is very predictable. So the wastage is vastly reduced. And also, because you're not refrigerating and flying it in, or putting it on a ship to bring produce in, you're cutting all that waste away as well that you would have to overgrow, oversow, overharvest, so that when you're importing it, you've still got a buffer. Our buffer is vastly reduced because it's so close to source.
Adam - Beyond food waste though, what advantages can vertical farming give us? Beyond sounding sci-fi?
James - Oh, it's a huge amount of advantages. There's three things you've got to think about hydroponics: it's people, produce, and power. If you can remove people out of the growing systems you're not introducing dirt, so that's why we automate a lot. Power: one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions is modern agriculture. We're aiming to be completely carbon neutral by the end of 2020. We are adopting some very exciting technology which can produce electricity, heat, and CO2, and the CO2 goes into the growth chambers. The heat will be used to work with the water patterns that we've already got to help sterilisation. And the power of course will be used for the environment and light power needs. That takes away the power elements, or the power problem. And then the produce is the third P, and effectively, if you can have year round specification-grown crop which goes into the food supply chain, pretty much at source, that's much better than growing and importing from all over the world because you can maintain a nutritional quality and it can be delivered and eaten within hours.