Zero Carbon Guildford was awarded its first grant shortly before Christmas. This provided us with £2,000 funding from Transition Network, to help us build a vertical farming installation.
Turns out quite a few people are unfamiliar with the miracle of vertical farming, so here’s a short post on what it is, and why Zero Carbon Guildford view this as an important piece of the jigsaw in combating the climate and ecological emergency.
Firstly though, a massive thanks to Transition Network for the grant. It seems really appropriate that our first grant was from Transition, because the ZCG project is heavily focused on how we, as a town, begin to build a resilient and adaptable economy and community that can survive - dare we say thrive - during periods of global crises driven by climate breakdown and the destruction of the ecosystems that support life on earth.
What Is Vertical Farming?
Fairly obviously, it involves growing food - upwards. Vertical farming is the practice of growing fruit and veg in stacked layers. This can be done either in a column of shelves, which is great for larger spaces, or in purpose-built towers, which can be installed in even tiny spaces in the home.
This method allows individuals and farmers to grow crops using far less land and water than traditional farming, as we’ll discuss shortly.
The towers in the image above demonstrate just how efficient vertical farming towers can be. You can install one virtually anywhere, and grow 50-100 plants in a single tower on your balcony or in your utility room - you only need about 2ft of space and you're good to go.
Similarly, water can be fed through each tower, or a sequence of towers, in a loop, hugely reducing irrigation bills on larger farms, and providing an excellent alternative for crop growing in areas which are already seeing increasing frequency and duration of the drought season.
Of course, the crops still need all of the things plants usually require - light, water, nutrients (and many tower manufacturers provide you with their special formula nutrient mix).
But the small spatial footprint of vertical farming installations means growing can be done inside, in polytunnels, greenhouses, or even your living room! This in turn means that the grower has very tight control over feeding, temperature, irrigation etc, and the result is that vertical farming is wayyyyy more efficient than traditional farming methods, allowing for massive reductions in food production waste.
About 1/3rd of all food produced by industrial agriculture is wasted every year - that’s about $1 trillion worth - enough to completely eliminate global hunger. So much for the ‘efficiency of markets’!
Why Are We Such A Fan Of Vertical Farming?
Our vertical farming installation will be used to highlight the risks of food shortages as global temperatures increase, and to encourage people to begin taking steps toward ‘food sovereignty’. Vertical farming towers can help people provide for themselves - and maybe even their community - in times of crisis whilst sidestepping a destructive global supply chain, even in the most confined of spaces.
The UK imports about 50% of the food we eat. As rising global temperatures cause drought to spread, minimise viable agricultural land, it is highly probable that countries will stop exporting food, so that they can ensure they can feed their own populations. After the 2008 financial crash, the largest food exporting countries dramatically lowered exports to ensure they could feed their own people. So this isn't a 'worse-case-scenario' - we already know how food exporters will respond when the impacts of the climate crisis are being felt more strongly, and we need to get in front of this threat and build self-sufficiency at least to a point that our communities can cope with the most severe times of food shortages.
The scale of the threat we face from climate-related food insecurity is unprecedented, and as such our plans to counter it should be appropriately ambitious. Imagine what a game-changer it would be if we could support and encourage a significant proportion of our community to begin growing their own food even in limited space, with the ambition of developing a coordinated programme that supports the community with fresh produce in difficult times.
Not only would it ensure that we could provide for those most vulnerable to the escalating climate and ecological crisis, it will allow us to end the emissions-heavy cycle of shipping food halfway across the planet, whilst tackling the severe plastic pollution problem our oceans and ecosystems face as a result of our food wrapping.
What Are The Benefits Of Vertical Farming?
As mentioned, a major benefit of vertical farming is the massive reduction in land needed to grow crops. 2 acre vertical farms have been out-producing 700 acre traditional farms! In fact, vertical farming can use up to 99% less land than a ‘flat’ farm.
Ecological destruction is at an unprecedented level. Habitat loss due to industrial farming is a driving factor in the 6th mass extinction, and if species cannot adapt or evolve to new habitats quickly - which they can’t, especially as competition for resources and food increases - the inevitable outcome is extinction of that species. The current rate of extinction has been estimated as up to 1000 times greater than the background rate (ie. we're seeing species loss at a rate 1000x higher than we expect to see during non-extinction events), so we desperately need to find alternatives to industrial agriculture, to reverse the collapse and destruction of the ecosystems which support life on earth - including human beings.
The second major advantage of vertical farming is water conservation. Water is fed through vertical farms through controlled irrigation systems - at a far lower cost than it would require to water the same volume of crops in a traditional farm. This means a vertical farm can use 95% less water than it’s traditional counterpart.
Thirdly, vertical farming towers - the type which we will be installing - allow you to grow crops without soil! Modelling suggests we have about 60 harvests left before soil degradation becomes such a massive problem that we can no longer feed the global population with traditional farming methods, which destroy soil quality, and release carbon, rather than sequestering it like more sustainable farming methods.
In fact, it's not an exaggeration to say that when you consider the combined threat of soil degradation and depletion of arable land, vertical farming may be one of the only options left to us in a few decades. As drought spreads and 'no-grow' areas increase, you can't just shift growing regions toward the poles. It takes millenia to generate quality top soil, and given our trajectory of 4 degrees warming above pre-industrial level by 2100, we simply don't have the option of relocating our growing regions to cooler latitudes. It's impossible. So soil-less vertical farming will undoubtedly have a huge role to play in feeding our future societies.
Food Production In Times Of Crisis
Covid-19 and Brexit have given Brits a genuine insight into the problem of food insecurity, and as such have turned one of the many largely intangible problems of climate breakdown into a strong (if very unwelcome) focal point to highlight the everyday consequences of inaction on climate breakdown. Within the last couple of months we've seen France shut its borders to the UK, 1000s of lorries idling on British motorways, and empty shelves in supermarkets. Our 'just-in-time' supply chain is not designed to deal with the mounting crises which we face. Vertical farming gives us a path to take production of nutritious, fresh food into our own hands.
The scale of the threat we face from climate-related food shortage is unprecedented, and as such our plans to counter it should be appropriately ambitious. Imagine what a game-changer it would be if we could support and encourage a significant proportion of our community to begin growing their own food even in limited space, with the ambition of developing a coordinated programme that provides the community with fresh produce in difficult times.
Why shouldn’t we aim to be able to supply every vulnerable member of our communities with fresh fruit and veg during times of crisis? Why shouldn’t we aim to be broadly self-sufficient as a town, growing enough fresh produce that via community share schemes, veg boxes etc we make Guildford food sovereign? Why should we be reliant on emissions-heavy imports when we could be eating fresh and locally sourced produce that support our neighbors and local farmers?
Most of all, why should we be confined by what the current system tells us ‘can’t work’, whilst that system is visibly crumbling before our eyes, and in its death throes driving myriad global crises?