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Vertical Farms: A Sustainable Future or a High-Energy Gamble?

In the heart of Lydney near Gloucester, a towering wall of edible greenery, comprising fifteen layers of trays filled with lettuces, salad leaves, basil, and other herbs, stretches up to 10 metres high under a vibrant array of multicoloured LED lights.



This impressive setup marks one of the UK's latest ventures into vertical farming, a method that cultivates plants indoors in a meticulously controlled environment throughout the year.


Despite the recent surge in energy costs leading to the closure of several similar projects, the technology continues to be celebrated as a potential future for food production.


Operated by Jones Food Company (JFC), the Lydney site has successfully transitioned from its pilot phase to become a key supplier to supermarkets, providing 30% of the UK's cut basil and producing 550 tonnes of fresh greens annually.


The farm grows a variety of crops including lettuces, pak choi, mizuna, komatsuna (Japanese spinach), watercress, basil, coriander, parsley, and dill at triple the rate of traditional farming methods.


These crops are cultivated in just 10 days without the use of pesticides and require 94% less water, thanks to hydroponics—a method that grows plants without soil, instead using a nutrient-rich water solution.


The operation at Lydney is energy-intensive, necessitating electricity for lights, heaters, humidifiers, and other equipment. However, James Lloyd-Jones, CEO and founder of JFC in 2017, assures that the farm's energy is sourced from renewable options like wind and solar power.


JFC's innovation has attracted significant backing, including from Ocado, which sells its fresh salad leaves and herbs. Asda and other retailers also stock products from JFC and its competitors, highlighting the growing market for vertically farmed produce.


Despite the success stories, the vertical farming industry has seen its share of failures, with companies like Agricool, Kalera, AppHarvest, and AeroFarms facing financial difficulties or closure. The challenges stem from a variety of factors including rising energy costs, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost of living crisis, difficulties in securing funding, and financial overreach.


James Lloyd-Jones reflects on the resilience and innovation required to succeed in the UK's vertical farming sector, noting the high standards for food production and the need to maintain competitive pricing. The controlled environment of JFC's farms, which includes a constant temperature and humidity level, allows for the efficient cultivation of crops, with the potential to expand into berry production in the future.


Other UK ventures, such as Fischer Farms and GrowUp Farms, are also making significant investments in vertical farming, indicating a growing interest in this sustainable method of food production. GrowUp Farms, in particular, emphasizes the importance of a resilient and robust food system that can withstand the challenges posed by climate change.


While vertical farming presents a promising solution for sustainable agriculture, some experts remain skeptical about its potential to replace traditional farming methods, particularly for staple crops.


Back at Lydney, Lloyd-Jones says: “If we built 94 farms of this size [Lydney], we could grow enough salad to replace those imported into the UK.


“I do believe that technology will provide food security in the future, however, not with herbs and salads. But you need to start somewhere … what we are doing now is creating supply security.”


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