There is a big market opportunity for controlled environment agriculture (CEA) according to Rhydian Beynon-Davies, Head of Novel Growing Systems at Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC). He comments: “The world will need sustainable solutions to an increasing extent in the future and we should be the ones to supply those solutions.
“Rather than denuding our capacity for the sake of some cheap food in the short term, a better approach would be to invest in sustainable methods of growing that will allow us to continue to ensure supply of high-quality food for our population well into the future.”
He explains that novel culture system can play an important part in improving our food production, by reducing pesticide use, nutrient leaching, water abstraction problems and the carbon footprint (depending on energy source of course!). These systems also have the potential to take pressure off the land and can contribute to improvements in the environment for everyone.
STC was launched to ensure continued technological developments for the horticultural industry. It is looking at the development of advanced lighting and control systems for indoor environments, creating a highly accurate phenotyping unit to allow faster variety screening and breeding approaches for CEA, and the commercial viability and agronomic considerations relating to specific crops, including the optimisation of air handling strategies, substrates and crop hygiene techniques.
Rhydian says: “I think we are on the cusp of some big developments in the UK. We have some really innovative start-ups here that have some really exciting technological innovations and business models, such as GrowUp, Lettus Grow, IGS, MotHive and many others. We also have software and IT companies that are thinking about ways to improve tracking, traceability and environmental audit, and offer real-time solutions across the production chain.
“Innovate UK and RCUK are starting to focus more heavily on supporting controlled environment growing and this should, over time, help to bring together companies and individuals from the disparate ‘knowledge and skills silos’ that will be required to progress the industry.”
Rhydian sees the potential for a new model for food production that would include:
“Localised distribution of fresh produce – A de-centralised approach, whereby producers can market niche varieties direct to the public via online systems that resemble those used by companies like Amazon.
“Alternative to supermarkets – There is plenty of store-front space in towns and cities that is becoming vacant. I think there is a market for a more diverse fresh produce offering that could be grown by indoor – and other – systems and coupled with online ordering and utilisation of town-centre premises that offer additional services such as prepared food and drink or even spaces for other activities.
“Diversity of crop – There is a big market for crops used to produce raw ingredients for pharmaceuticals and also opportunities to offer other crops not normally grown in the UK (e.g. herbs, novel leafy products, fruit crops) for those that are willing to put in the initial investment and R&D.
“Improving crop productivity – There is also a real opportunity for adding value or increasing efficiency in crop production by targeting different phases of growth in indoor facilities.
“Increasing variety for consumer – The ability to produce a wide variety of new-to-market varieties and crops could lead to greater diversification in the offering to consumers, as much of the selective (and targeted) breeding that has occurred up till now has acted to remove key textural and flavour diversity in a quest to improve pest and disease resistance, shelf-life and ability to grow in a tightly-defined range of conditions.”
Rhydian concludes: “Going forward I think we will see systems which are sub-divided for production of individual varieties, rather than the cavernous spaces growing multiple crops that are common in most current commercial CEA systems.
“However, there is still room to improve more conventional production systems though better sensing and decision-support technologies, automation – such as seeding, propagation, planting, de-leafing and harvesting – and engineering – e.g. photovoltaic glass, efficient low-cost HVAC technology – and we are also looking at this at STC.”
The event ‘Bringing The Outside In – Innovating for Controlled Environment Agriculture’ is taking place on 19th March from 10.00 – 16.00 at Rothamsted Research. It will look at the different growing systems, emerging technologies, the challenges of implementing a system and the logistics involved with integrating a controlled environment agriculture into the food value chain. See more information here.