What Is Vertical Farming?
Vertical farming is the practice of growing food in vertical columns, using either vertical farming towers or shelving racks. This practice allows growers to use minimal land whilst conserving water and lowering energy consumption. Vertical growing offers an amazing way to grow crops when space is limited - even allowing you to grow leafy greens and other delicious fruit and veg inside your own home!
Watch the video! Find out more about ZERO's vertical farming project
Vertical Farming In Guildford
Toward the end of 2020 we received funding from Transition Network (thanks TN!) to help us set up a mini vertical farming installation. Our goal is to use vertical farming towers to showcase the potential of growing your own food even with limited space, and to build a local network of vertical growers who share resources, skills and knowledge. We hope to drive a push for food security during times of crisis as one strategic component in Guildford achieving food sovereignty.
We aim to work with other local charities and community groups, Guildford farmers market, and the local council, so that homeless or unemployed Guildfordians can tend the vertical farm to grow produce, providing training and reskilling for those who most need it, whilst providing a pathway for these community members to engage in climate action and food sovereignty. We will also use the installation to help interested residents learn about vertical farming, and about becoming ‘food sovereign’ as a borough.
What Does This Project Achieve?
What Problem Is This Addressing?
Industrial scale farming and mono-cropping have led to rapid soil degradation, a problem which needs urgent redress through regenerative farming practices such as cover cropping and no-till farming to help restore soil quality.
Intensive agriculture is not only water and energy-intensive, it's not even very efficient, with around 30% of food grown by traditional methods being wasted at the production stage!
We're a pretty ambitious bunch, and we hope to use this project to drive education and contagious behaviour, spreading innovative growing techniques through the community, so that during times of crisis and food insecurity the community can support itself with fresh fruit and veg. Amazing things happened in mutual aid groups in Guildford and across the country when lockdown kicked in. We need this level of collaboration - and a lot more - given the threat and severity of climate crisis-related food insecurity.
Climate Change And Food Insecurity
How does climate change threaten food security for the UK? The UK imports a massive 50% of the food that we eat, and as such we actually face a number of different threats to our food security.
The first aspect is the threat to our home grown produce. Temperatures are rising year on year, and climate breakdown will bring an increase in variability to the UK. March and April this year (2021) have shown us this better than we could ever describe it, with 24 degree temperatures at the end of March followed by two periods of snow! Summer 2020 was the hottest on record, and in 2018 we suffered a record drought throughout June and July, resulting in crop failure and wildfires. We got lucky that the drought ended when it did, but had it continued another few weeks - as will certainly happen as temperatures keep rising - the effect on our homegrown crops would have been devastating, and we’d have likely seen extensive food shortages.
That we import half of the food we rely on compounds this threat, because as global temperatures rise the risk of drought increases. In turn, the unfarmable areas of land around the equator expand in size. Growers produce less crops, and the food exporting countries become less likely to keep exporting at usual levels, to ensure they have enough food to feed their own populations.
This isn’t ‘what might happen’. It’s likely-case scenario - and we have precedent. After the financial crash in 2009 many net-exporters of food shut down trade to ensure they could meet demand at home. So we know it’s the likely response when global drought becomes more severe.
But to add another element of risk there’s also the threat of food insecurity from ecological destruction. Insect numbers are dwindling at a terrifying rate, and we rely on many of these insects for pollination of human food crops. So our own destruction of wild habitat through industrial agriculture under the pretence of being necessary to feed 8 billion humans is in fact endangering our own food supply. In reality, this is corporate spin, and we could feed the world many times over simply by repurposing the land used to grow feed for animals bred for industrial agriculture and instead using it to grow crops that humans eat. It’s really not that tricky. But our economic model which demands ‘growth at all costs’ keeps us trapped in this extractive, destructive method of farming. The worst part is industrial agriculture is not even efficient - around 30% of the crops grown in industrial agriculture go straight to waste,
So the UK is incredibly vulnerable to food insecurity because of the combination of our reliance on imported food, and the increase of drought both at home and abroad.
Why Is Vertical Farming Needed?
There’s no magic bullet to the climate and ecological crisis. The only way to mitigate the worst of this planetary emergency is to begin an immediate and rapid managed transition away from fossil fuels, (the emphasis on ‘managed’ is because we need to protect the millions of workers in polluting sectors whilst decarbonising through structured retraining), reducing waste, consumption, and manufacturing, and discovering new ways to live within planetary boundaries, in an economic model which recognises that all economics takes place within the biosphere, rather than ignoring it as an inconvenient obstacle to growth.
But a combination of policies that allow for a rapid but planned overhaul of our most destructive processes - and industrial agriculture is one of those - can each fill an important part of the puzzle. Vertical farming is one of the transitions that we could adopt at a large scale, and pretty rapidly.
For a start, you can grow fruit and veg 365 days a year. Now you might think that warming temperatures mean an extended growing season, and you’d be right, but you only need to look outside at the dead Magnolias and other Spring bloomers to see what an increase in variability could mean for our food crops. So bringing vertical growing indoors not only allows for year-round production, it also allows us much tighter control over the variables we get by growing outside, and as such can have a hugely beneficial impact on crop yields. Not to mention the avoidance of extreme weather events which only stand to increase in frequency and severity as the climate crisis escalates.
It’s also profitable! We aren’t naive enough to think businesses are going to adopt radical climate action without a financial incentive, but vertical farming can drastically increase profitability from growing, whilst eliminating most of the 30% of crops currently wasted before they even leave the farm!
In fact the vertical farming industry is valued at about $2bn today, but it’s predicted to hit nearly £10bn by 2026. So we’re not the only ones who see the game changing potential in vertical farming!
On top of all that, vertical farming will allow us to localise a significant proportion of our produce growth. Localisation is going to be a hugely important part of both mitigation, by reducing transport emissions to curb CO2 increases, and of adaptation, by allowing us to become food sovereign should global food supply chains collapse.
All of these factors combined mean that we see vertical farming as a hugely important factor in mitigating and adapting to climate breakdown. Let’s hope for the best, plan for the worst, and make vertical farming a key part of how we transition to a low carbon future supported by a local economy.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled For Vertical Vegetables!
We aim to get our vertical farming project set up as soon we open the Guildford climate emergency centre. Watch this space! And if you have expertise in vertical gardening, fancy a new challenge, or want to get involved with projects around food security, permaculture, agro-ecology, we’d love you to get involved!