The world’s population will reach between nine and ten billion by 2050 and scaling up food production sufficiently to feed our greater population, using our current system, is not viable if we are to meet the agreed climate change targets.
More of the same is not an answer…so what is?
Intertek’s Global Innovation Manager Patrick McNamara meets with Kate Brunswick from Innovation Agritech Group and SAI Global’s Robin Levin to discuss vertical farming as a sustainable solution to food security challenges.
Case Study [saiassurance.co.uk]: Learn more about IAG’s journey to Red Tractor Certification
Hello and welcome to our podcast on Vertical farming as a solution to meeting food security challenges. My name is Rowena Curtis UK and I Business Assurance Marketing Manager at Intertek SAI Global. And I'm joined today by our guest, Kate Brunswick, Business Development Director at Innovation Agritech Group from Intertek, S A I Global. We have Patrick McNamara, global Innovations and Quality Manager, and Robin Levin, ag Agri Relationship Manager. With that, I'll hand over to Patrick, who will facilitate today's session.Speaker 2:
Thanks, Serena, and good afternoon everyone. I hope wherever you're tuning in from today, you're all well. Now, is there anybody out there who still thinks the 2020s are a bit dull? Anybody who thinks that the decade so far has been a bit short of incident? We could do it with livening it up a bit. No thought. No. A global pandemic, energy crises, financial crises, geopolitical instability, and along with all of these things that roar in and fade out, the slow march of climate change and global temperature rise and the severe weather events that accompany those things. Now, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which you'll all know and love as COP 27, began in Sharmel Shake on Sunday. And on Monday, the UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez told the attendees from 200 nations that the world was on the highway to climb hell in a speech that laid out very stark choices for us. Indeed, senior Gutierrez said, we can sign a climate. So the Solidarity Pact or a collective suicide pact, I think it's fair to say the stakes that Mr. G Gaer is outlined were very high indeed. So how do we need to address that? Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food System Summit all broadly suggested that we need to look at three particular areas of food production in order to address the major issues we needed to implement a less impactful form of agriculture. We need to maximize the benefits of technology and biotechnology, and we need to change consumer behavior and expectations. So today's session, we're going to be discussing one of the new technologies, which we hope is going to be a big contributor to the first of those three key key pillars, which is traditional agriculture. And we're going to be looking at vertical farming. Now as Ena introduced, uh, we have Kate Brunswick with us who is Business Development director at, uh, innovation Agritech Group. So Kate, if I could, could turn to you, um, can you just explain to us what vertical farming is and about the particular aeroponics technology that I h g use in their system?Speaker 3:
Yes, absolutely. Good afternoon, Patrick. Um, innovation Agritech group uses aeroponic vertical farming. So vertical farming tends to fall into two categories, uh, which people will be most familiar with, which is hydroponics and aero products. Vertical farming as, um, an industry can also fall under the category of, uh, c e a controlled environment agriculture, which means that we have the opportunity to control the environment in which the plants are grown, whether that's in, um, purpose-built farms, or whether that's in repurpose buildings, uh, within the UK or or globally. So we grow, we grow our products and our produce indoors under l e d lights. Okay. So, uh, hydroponics tends to be horizontal stacks. Probably the thing that people are most familiar with when they think about vertical farming, um, are the big American farms that you may have seen on the news. So your freight farms or aero farms where they use hydroponics in stack trays in very, very high, high buildings. Um, innovation, a agritech group we use, uh, we deploy aero phonics and they are actually hanging in vertical frames. So we have our growth frame 360, which is 10 panels hanging within a stainless steel frame. Um, the, the products are planted within the panels transferred from seedlings, and then within that panel, which you can open up into two pieces, it's a little bit like a suitcase. Um, there is an aero ponic mist, which is sprayed on the roots of the plants to enable maximum ization and space around the plants, but also allowing the plants to just take what they need from that nutrient rich mist.Speaker 2:
Okay, fantastic. And given the apocalyptic scenario that I've just shown for you, and I don't wanna frighten who's listening to this light at night and uh, probably going to bed sleepless, um, what do you feel the environmental benefits are in terms of, of perhaps the, the reduction in water use or the use of space? How do you feel that the vertical farming contributes to lessening the environmental impact?Speaker 3:
Well, in terms of vertical farming, you, you can repurpose buildings that may be derelict if we're thinking about potentially UK farms, for example, we had an inquiry recently about, from a farmer who, um, his livestock buildings had sat empty since foot and mouth and he was looking to do something else with that area, which means that he wasn't gonna take up his lamb mass, um, with some unique or niche production. He was going to use one of those buildings. He was going to repurpose it, use our technology to, to run something more exciting alongside what he currently does. And what that means is that he's able to take our usps, which means that he's not going to be affected by seasonality or the different, the changes within our seasons at the moment. So the seasonality as in the four seasons, we used to recognize Patrick, not the ones that we have currently where we're not entirely sure whether we're in spring or aum Yeah. Or summer. So, um, we take out those risks of drought or wind or flood or any of those temperature changes because we can control the environment indoors, which means we can replicate the success of that, that plant growth 3, 6, 5 days a year.Speaker 2:
So essentially we're, we're taking some of the unpredictability of the current climate situation out of it. And, and obviously we can repurpose buildings that otherwise would've perhaps remained derelict. Uh, it's interesting cause I think what our listeners probably be interested in, and especially those who are currently doing perhaps more traditional farm farming practices, um, they're wondering how perhaps they can get into vertical farming is it's something that is easily transferable from the highly technical version that you have to something that other farmers might recognize.Speaker 3:
I think in terms of our own technology and the way we've strategically built it and placed it within the market is not to make it seem that you need to be an astronaut or a physicist or an agronomist to be able to use it. It is essentially quite a straightforward plug and play system. It's modular and scalable. So you could start with 10 panels, which is our minimum size, which is our growth range 360. And then as you have developed your range, you can add more, more of the frames on either above, so you can statin too high or alongside or behind. So you've got me in a long row or side by side. Um, so it's, it's about accessibility. It's about us being able to assist that farmer to realize that it, it's, it's about being an entrepreneur or wanting to secure part of your farm with, with successful crops 3, 6, 5 days a year. It's not designed to be NASA space, age, sci-fi technology. It's designed to be simple and understandable and accessible so that that farmer who's been doing, you know, maybe the same thing year in year out or second or third generation farmer can actually realize that they, they have the capability to use this system.Speaker 2:
That's really interesting. The reason I asked that question is, um, I was lucky enough to go to your open day in Bracknell recently, and um, there were some highly skilled, very technically capable people that were onsite there, uh, we spoke to. Um, so would you think then that farmers who are currently in a difficult economic situation, you feel it's something that they can introduce as an additional revenue stream or perhaps something that they can move towards quite quickly? Is it commercially viable at the moment? Perhaps?Speaker 3:
I think it's commercially viable at the moment. Um, we have been in r and d phase for the last four or five years. You've rightly, uh, recognized that it takes some technical skill to get to this stage in order we can simplify it for the consumer, which seems like slightly kind of, uh, a, a roundabout way of saying that we've had to put some real expertise behind it to make it simple for our customer. So we have our own plant scientists on site, um, both PhD graduates who are looking at how we optimize everything that we do, not just optimize the environment, but optimize what we grow to ensure that our customers who wants some better word or clients or partnerships can be successful in what they're growing and get their ROI as quickly as possible. If it's financially out of reach, then it becomes too much of a decision maybe for a farmer that is thinking about diversifying.Speaker 2:
Yeah, I, I I think that's a key point. Uh, I think one of the key pillars of sustainability that people sometimes forget about is economic viability. Um, it, it, it's, it's quite an interesting, uh, thing. One, one of the things that struck me was there's a big concentration on perhaps salad crops and, and things like that at the moment. Um, are there areas that you are developing that you can move into that other crops that you're looking at perhaps growing in this manner? Is there a limit to what can be currently growing?Speaker 3:
Well, I, I usually answer that question with another question, Patrick, because we get asked all sorts of crazy and weird and wonderful questions about what we can grow. And I think the answer is twofold. It is, can we grow it? And 99% of the time the answer is yes, it will grow in our system. Can we grow it commercially to be a recognizable crop? Not always. So I think potatoes is something that's come up recently and rice and wheat, they're not, they're not cash crops. Should you wish to invest in a, in a new vertical farming system and grow wheat, your ROI would be a lot further down the road than if you were choosing to grow saffron or a pharmaceutical crop or a cosmetic crop or a medicinal crop. So can we grow it? Yes. Is it worth growing in a commercial environment? Not always. Yeah. The system lends itself perfectly to leafy greens and herbs, but we have also grown successfully, French beans, chilies, um, all sorts of other herbs, cosmetic plants for pigment extraction, as well as medicinal crops, as well as those wonderful trial crops working with academic partners at the moment to verify some other, other crops as well. So we work in collaboration with our, our universities, our UK university,Speaker 2:
Uh, that, that's quite interesting. Cause I'm, I'm thinking really of, I'm, I'm thinking of the future and looking at, um, areas of the world in which vertical farming would be a necessity in a new future scape where the weather has made it almost impossible to grow traditionally. So I'm thinking of other countries perhaps who, who may want to look at different crops. Um, I'm gonna come on to something that, that now risk management is what I do, and I know it's what Robin does and his SAI colleagues as well. Um, there are three pillars that we always pointed for novel foods. Now what you are growing is not a novel food, but it may be considered a novel technique. And what they normally look at is quite simply, is it safe, is it being honest with the consumer and is it equivalent to something that already exists? Those are the three qualifications normally for novel foods. So in terms of, of risk management and safety, um, what areas do you concentrate on? Because it's very different from traditional farming. So what are your risk areas immediately, do you think?Speaker 3:
So the risk areas for us, where we started, Patrick was growing, um, in order to prove the technology, we were growing food crops. So having come from a tra a traditional, uh, food production background myself, whether we were selling those crops as a commercial for a commercial off tape partner, or we were consuming them as members of the team, I needed to know and reassure the people within the team and also anybody that we were talking to in terms of the consumer partnership that, that we had addressed the risk from seed right the way through to, to then harvesting distribution. So, okay, one of the biggest risks I came across in our business for it being a new business with a relatively young team, um, was, uh, about people, the training of people to understand, uh, the process that we were trying to secure and, and cement within the business, and then also identifying those risk points right the way through, which is where, uh, red Tractor and, uh, Sai Intertek came, came, came into play. But having worked with the supermarkets previously, and obviously there are many different audit and accreditation bodies in that within that sphere, that,Speaker 2:
That, that's really interesting. You set me up for perfectly actually because, um, I was going to bring in Robin if I could. Um, because Red Tractor robbing is more associated with traditional farming and it, it's a, a benchmark standard that I know s ii certifies against all over the country. Um, if you want to just talk a little bit about Red Tractor for anybody who might not be familiar with the standard, the sort of things it covers and perhaps how we can apply it to this new technology.Speaker 4:
Okay, thank you Patrick, and good afternoon to everybody. Uh, listening and, and joining in, uh, red Tractor itself is, uh, is is the leading UK standard, uh, possibly world-leading, um, for agriculture, uh, primary production of food. So, uh, they're looking at, uh, sort of five pillars. Uh, and this would include, uh, it's, it is the food safe. Um, um, something Kate's already touched on, is it traceable is actually probably the most important thing for consumers, you know, where does my food come from? Um, uh, we're also looking now at, uh, the environment. Um, will the environment be be harmed by it or in indeed may be augmented by it. Um, and also, um, the worker welfare involved, the people involved in agriculture, um, hopefully, uh, having a, a sort of reasonable standard of employment and safety and so on as well. So, uh, these are the sort of main areas that we look at for any primary production audit, but particularly the Red Tractor standards and the Fresh Produce standard, which this is, is, uh, covered by, uh, will cover from, uh, before sort of sourcing the seed, if you like, right the way through to when it leaves the production site, uh, which in some cases will actually, uh, have some, um, uh, packing, uh, and so on and, and preparing the food on site. Um, and it, we may even cross over with, uh, uh, a food standard like BRC in the process. And we're looking at really what, uh, business, um, uh, like Kates will actually be doing to minimize any risks involved. So it's a great system for what I can see for, for being able to control, uh, many things. Um, certainly the environment, it offers some great, uh, benefits because it's not, um, uh, putting anything at risk outside of the building that it's in. Uh, maybe it's allowing more space for the environment to, to grow naturally. And, uh, in terms of worker welfare that's covered anyway by, um, the Red Tractor standard and other specific worker welfare standards. Um, and so, you know, all in all in terms of food safety as well, it, it's very much, uh, capable of being, uh, managed and controlled and the risks reduced. So, um, I think it's a, a really exciting area, uh, for the future and, uh, I hope we see more of them.Speaker 2:
Uh, that, that's really good, Robin. Thank you. And um, like I say on my, my visit there, I was hugely impressed with the level of control, um, the use of, of AI and the way it was controlled on laptops down, you know, every single parameter is obviously monitored and adjusted as necessary, consistently, which is really interesting to see. Um, before we finish off, Kate, I'd like to, to look a bit at the future, cause I'm quite keen on the future, um, uh, in terms of where you see this going, because I, a commendably mentioned that they were intent on helping developing countries to adapt it and making sure that it was something that could make a positive contribution in a number of ways. It's one of the things that impressed me most, actually. So where do you see the future for I a g immediately? Where do you think it's going to expand into? I think Robin's made the point that he can see a, a market for immediately here. Uh, is that where you're concentrating on at the moment?Speaker 3:
Um, I don't think we're concentrating on one, any one area, Patrick, to be perfectly honest with you. We've just been working these last couple of days on, uh, we've got several proposals that we're working on at the moment, which covers America. So the, the Midwest tornado alley where they can lose a crop in, in, you know, a matter of a day. We have, uh, some very strong interests there. We have a partner in the states called Co Alliance who is supporting us with some showroom farms and rollouts so that their, their cooperative and that their teams of farmers can understand where this can fit in. Uh, we are just about to complete another proposal, which is it out in Saudi, so sort of middle and far east, obviously in places where water is an issue because we use so little water in our system, it's a closed loop system, we recycle the water use. Um, if if there's an area where there's a lot of sand and not a lot of water, then that, that kind of works for us. Um, and also in terms of, of using solar energy and, and being as sustainable as possible, those areas equally have a lot more sunlight than we do here, which wouldn't be hard on days like today, Patrick, to be honest. But, um, that lends itself really well there as well. We have, we have collaborations with universities who want to understand the engineering side, um, of what we're doing. And also the plant science. We, we are speaking to people who want to secure their supply chain, Patrick. So instead of flying, you know, freighted produce from Kenya or Morocco or Israel or Spain, you know, we can put our farm closer to the consumer or closer to the packhouse, which means that those ingredients or so products are, are, are right next to where they're required. So it's re I haven't answered your question with one specific answer, I'm afraid there's so many applications. There are so, uh, many applications for our products that, um, I think it'd be wrong to limit us to one area.Speaker 2:
No, uh, uh, that's exactly the answer I was hoping to get. Um, and, and I think because it is an adaptable technology, and actually your, your answer reminded me of the water stress map I looked at early this morning, and a lot of the areas you're working are the, the ones in a varied, varied, deep red color come 2030. Those are exactly the areas I think that will benefit from that technology. Uh, and as well you mentioned, um, specifically the, the mileage involved, the impact of, of transport and especially the last mile impact, which is really, really important. Um, I noticed in Germany they, they've actually built VF units at the back of supermarkets. People like little have started doing it. So I mean, again, there are opportunities everywhere. Um, so Robin, can you see yourself perhaps traveling to the site? So, so Saudi Arabia, so order vertical thought.Speaker 4:
I've already booked my plane ticket, PatrickSpeaker 2:
<laugh>. Well, as long as you, as long as you bought me on the site next to you, I'll look forward to<laugh>, but, um, I, I think we're, we're almost out of time. Um, thank you both for what has been a, a really, really interesting discussion. Um, thanks. Also, I'll take the opportunity to thank the I a g team for looking after us when we went to visit them recently. It was a fascinating day out. It's a, a really, really exciting technology and I can see the advantages for the planet. And if I could close before I hand back to Ena with a quote from Antoine San Exuberate. And the task is not to foresee the future, but to enable it. So thanks to I a G and all the people in food production who are enabling in the future, and thanks to Robin and his s a i colleagues for making sure they've enabled it in a safe way. So, uh, I'll just hand back to Aena to close the session and thank you both.Speaker 1:
Great. Thank you very much to, um, our, our speaker today and Kate for joining us. If you are interested in learning more about Farm Assurance Services, please follow the links in the, in this podcast. Don't forget to subscribe and rate us. And also please follow us on LinkedIn and.