Researchers at The James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen have found that Scotland's growing utilisation of renewable energy has the potential to enhance the environmental sustainability of vertical farming techniques for producing greens, compared to traditional open-field methods.
Initially, the experts discovered that indoor, controlled farming for lettuce production could result in higher carbon emissions than conventional open-field methods, considering the energy consumption in Scotland in 2019.
However, due to the increasing use of renewables, which now account for up to 91% of the carbon footprint of vertical farming, the environmental impact of this technique is now comparable to UK open-field grown lettuce.
While vertical farming with 100% renewable electricity and further advancements in the approach may reduce emissions even more, it still falls short of achieving carbon neutrality.
Frances Sandison, a life cycle analyst at the Hutton Institute, who led the research, explained that vertical farming is a relatively new method still in development, leaving room for improvement in many areas.
Vertical farming currently focuses mainly on growing leafy greens and herbs, but efforts are being made to explore the cultivation of other crops like strawberries and tomatoes. Despite not being completely carbon neutral, vertical farming offers advantages such as year-round produce unaffected by seasonality, local production, reduced need for storage, and fewer pesticides.
The study was conducted on a theoretical farm, but the researchers plan to expand their investigation by collaborating with actual vertical farms across the UK, thanks to funding from the Scottish Government and industry.
Professor Derek Stewart, Director of the Hutton's Advanced Plant Growth Centre (AGPC) innovation center, emphasized the need to consider wider implications of food production. He believes that Scotland's increasing reliance on renewable energy presents an opportunity for the country to become a leader in sustainable food production, potentially addressing the UK's annual import deficit of £6 billion for fruits and vegetables while creating high-value jobs.
He stated: “Scotland is increasingly a land of renewable energy, and this study highlights that this offers the potential for it to also become a leader in the production of sustainable food for the UK and beyond. A shift to fresh produce production could increase the availability of nutritious and high-quality food, diminish the UK annual import deficit of £6 billion for fruit and vegetables and create permanent high-value jobs.”
The research, published in the journal Food and Energy Security, marks a significant step towards exploring the potential of renewable-powered vertical farming as a climate-friendly alternative for growing greens.
The research, which was published in the journal Food and Energy Security is available here.