In the era of climate change and Brexit, British farming is facing unprecedented challenges. How to supply environmentally friendly, locally sourced and competitively priced food?
One part of the answer could lie in a shipping container in an east London car park, just moment’s away from the capital’s business district. Inside are racks of leafy green vegetables, grown vertically using hydroponic technology.
Instead of being planted in soil, the vegetables are plugged in to a system of nutrient-rich water and kept at the optimal temperature, under specially designed lighting.
The result is flavoursome lettuces, kale, basil and other leaves, free of pesticides and using up to 95 per cent less water than traditional agriculture over a fraction of the space.
The shipping containers, which are custom made, mean the produce can be located virtually on the doorstep of its market, effectively eliminating food miles.
“Traditional organic farming is not sustainable if we're going to feed a population,” says Sebastian Sainsbury, the founder of Crate to Plate, which has just had its first harvest.
Not only does Crate to Plate use otherwise wasted space - these three shipping containers can grow the equivalent of an acre’s soil - but the proximity to customers keeps the produce fresh.
“When you harvest the lettuce from the soil, within 48 hours, you've lost 40 per cent of the nutritional value. And it goes down every day,”
Indoor farming has boomed in recent years, particularly in the US, where Mr Sainsbury lived until recently and where he developed his business.
But the UK is yet to fully capitalise on its opportunities, says Dr Robert Hancock of the James Hutton Institute, which is supporting pioneering vertical farming techniques from its facility in Dundee.
“Even with current technologies and current efficiencies, there's probably a lot more that can be done. And I think that indoor farming can interface a lot more with the broader agricultural picture,” he said.
Environment Secretary George Eustice this week said vertical farming would have a vital role to play in helping British farming meet the challenges of climate change and post-Brexit food security.
“There are a lot of pressures on land use,” he told the parliamentary environment committee, highlighting “the tricky issue” of repairing biodiversity and soil health in our intensely farmed landscapes.
Mr Hancock highlighted the UK’s strawberry industry, which relies on imports of propagated plants from the Netherlands, as one example of where indoor farming could boost British production. Britain produces just 7 per cent of its fruit and 53 per cent of its vegetables. But ultimately, he says, vertical farming can only ever be part of the answer and will likely be limited to salads, berries and niche crops.
“The replacement for calorie crops I don't think is ever going to happen,” he said.
Crate to Plate is the latest of several hydroponic farming ventures started by those outside of traditional agriculture (Mr Sainsbury is an ex-banker), many of which haven’t translated to long-term success. The key to seeing vertical farming at scale will be getting more existing farmers on board, says Mr Hancock.
“They understand the economics of growing. And they also understand the routes to market,” he said.
The government is hoping that the end of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy could be a chance for new blood to enter the agricultural industry, and will offer older farmers a “golden handshake” if they retire early.
Mr Sainsbury employs three recent agricultural graduates, and says the younger generation are eager to explore new technologies. He has also had interest from farmers keen to locate his shipping containers on their land.
So far, Crate to Plate’s economies of scale and niche produce puts them out of reach of the average supermarket shopper (think £10+ salads marketed to City workers). But they have hopes of moving into residential areas, amid a growing trend for urban farming. The dream, says Mr Sainsbury, would be a vegetable farm in every urban neighbourhood, manned by a dedicated farmer and producing fresh produce for everyone to buy.
“The aim is to make it as local as possible,” he said.