As investment increases and the cost of production comes down, vertical farming has the potential to replace imports in leafy salads.
This is the view of Vernon Mascarenhas, a director at the London-based vertical farming company GrowUp Farms, which has specialised in growing micro greens, salads and herbs for the restaurant sector and is now focused on applying its know-how to industrial-scale salad production.
Several companies in the UK and abroad are making good progress on the challenges of making vertical farming work at scale, said Mascarenhas, who believes we are no more than a few years away from produce grown in industrial-scale vertical farms becoming an established part of the UK supply chain.
Also a commercial director at New Covent Garden catering supplier Nature’s Choice, he stressed that if UK growers can start growing salad heads year-round in Britain, the implications of not having to import large volumes from Spain in the winter will be huge.
“If companies like G’s don’t invest multi millions, they will have a real problem,” he said. “As soon as we get up and running and can produce gem and cos in the UK in the winter, it’s going to replace supply from Murcia, and this will increase suppliers’ margins.
“The price of a two-pack of gem in a supermarket is around 75p, and to bring it over from Murcia costs around 28p. Instead of wasting this 28p per pack on long-distance haulage, we can use it to pay off the capital investment required to build vertical farms where we will soon be able to produce gems for around 12p.”
Mascarenhas also said UK supermarkets are on the verge of having vertical farms in store, on their rooftops or in their car parks that not only showcase food production, but also provide significant supply – in wholehead salads as well as herbs.
In Britain he thinks Ocado, Amazon or possibly Asda could be the first to invest in vertical production, predicting that Asda’s owner Walmart could soon be taken over by Amazon – “Amazon will invest whatever they need to in this kind of thing,” he said.
Indeed it has already been announced that Berlin-based start-up Infarm is set to launch its in-store vertical farms withsome of the UK’s largest online and brick-and-mortar supermarkets in September, adding to its network of over 200 in-store farms across Germany, Switzerland and France.
Although many are sceptical about the financial viability of growing vertically, Mascarenhas is confident the cost of production will come down quickly in the next few years as technology advances, operational knowhow improves, and large investments are made in the sector. For example, in June Ocado invested £17 million in two vertical farming businesses, with plans to grow herbs and leafy greens next to its distribution centres.
Up until now, only micro greens and herbs have proven financially viable for vertical production in the UK, but such developments will allow mainstream salad produce to be grown domestically for the retail sector – both in store and, more importantly, in big warehouses – starting with baby leaf and moving into gem and cos lettuce, lollo rossa, oakleaf and other salad leaves.
“These vertical farms will be completely automated," he said. "The salad seeds will be sown, grown, watered, harvested and packaged without a human hand and the products will be grown in controlled conditions, with no pests or chemicals.
“We have all that technology already and established horticultural companies are heavily involved in making this happen.”
Produced vertically, a gem lettuce will only take 28 days to grow from sowing to harvesting, according to Mascarenhas, and once this has been achieved, producers can move on to rocket and spinach, which he says will be possible to produce in just 18 days.
He added that as well as allowing for more consistent year-round production, vertical farming can deliver higher quality and safer products than are currently available since they are grown in a controlled environment.
“Leafy products are just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Trials are currently happening around Europe on fruiting crops such as strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes and cucumbers, although these are still very early stage and it will be a while before the know-how and technology gets to a place where it makes commercial sense to grow them in a vertical farm.
“Basically, anything that grows as a root crop doesn’t work, but anything that grow upwards might. There’s a possibility that products like courgettes, beans and peas could be grown vertically but we have no idea yet what the economics of that would look like.”