Does farming’s greener future mean a return to tradition, or new technology that heralds ‘the end of sustainable agriculture as we know it’?

With the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis becoming increasingly pressing, we could see a shift away from conventional agriculture towards indoor food production, say some experts.

With the UK committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, agri-tech — technology applied to farming — is increasingly playing a crucial role in reconciling food production with sustainability. But rapidly advancing innovation, together with the growing interest in the natural capital of land to combat climate change and halt the decline in biodiversity, could change agriculture as we know it, with vertical farming replacing, at least in part, field-grown crops.

Emily Norton, head of rural research at Savills, told a meeting of rural professionals this week that the future may not look anything like they’ve envisioned.

‘Pursuing carbon efficiency in agriculture is going to be transformational,’ she said at a meeting in Norwich.

‘Farmers have naturally been adopting a wait-and-see approach to accessing ELMS, but the climate debate could fast-track disruptive agricultural innovation and signal the end of sustainable agriculture as we recognise it here in Norfolk.’

That’s a stark warning: we think of sustainable farming as a return to traditional methods, and while this will be part of the solution there will be a role for technology such as indoor growing.

‘If agriculture as an industry accepts the net-zero challenge we need to be prepared to adapt accordingly… Indoor production is inevitable for a variety of crops’

‘The Committee on Climate Change Land Use Change report recommended the release of around half of all UK arable land to environmental adaptation,’ she explained.

‘If we’re to produce the same amount of food, this signals a major shift to innovations like controlled environment agriculture — removing food production from the soil. However controversial it might feel, if agriculture as an industry accepts the net-zero challenge we need to be prepared to adapt accordingly. Net-zero, climate change and technological innovation all suggest that more indoor production is inevitable for a variety of crops.’

There is no doubt that, with the climate emergency at the forefront people’s minds, there’s growing demand for land to deliver environmental benefits, whether through planting trees, generating green energy or restoring habitats for fast-disappearing wildlife.

Likewise, the technology to deliver sustainable, indoor-farmed produce has quickly advanced. ‘For many years, we have grown produce in glasshouses and vertical farming is another step forward,’ says Charlie Yorke, technology specialist at rural insurers NFU Mutual, which earlier this month published a report on agri-tech.

‘Crops can essentially be grown anywhere as long as there is water and electricity’

The term, he continues, broadly covers ‘a variety of farming methods that stack multiple layers of crops on top of one another — fully utilising 3D space.’ Farm designs can be entirely tailored to suit each crop type and space constraints, whether this means having racks of micro-green pallets in a shipping container, or tall spires of lettuces in a bespoke glasshouse. Because of this flexibility, ‘crops can essentially be grown anywhere as long as there is water and electricity.’

But the system’s key advantage, according to Mr Yorke, is that farmers ‘can control the environment completely,’ targeting it to the specific requirements of the crops they are growing to optimise growth and yields. ‘They can control the humidity, the temperature, the light and they can really start to tailor these crops just by using light and different nutrients.’

Essentially, this means people can ‘consistently produce perfect crops all year round’. And because everything is closely controlled, ‘there is minimal use of pesticides and petrochemical fertilisers’. Vertical farms also ‘hardly use any water and a lot of what they use is recycled — it might be from rain, it might be filtered.’ Mr Yorke mentions Intelligent Growth Solutions, a vertical farm system in Edinburgh, as an example of a company that recycles rain water.

All this, together with the ability to make the best possible use of available space, results in ‘higher yields per area of land with much lower waste’.

‘Leafy greens work well but cereals and fruits are a challenge’

Nonetheless, the National Farmers’ Union, which earlier this year stated that agriculture should strive and become carbon neutral by 2040, ten years earlier than the government’s own deadline, believe that it’s yet early days for soil-less farming to supplant more traditional practices.‘Vertical farming is very much in the early stages of being researched to test how feasible it is for the future,’ said a spokesperson. ‘Currently, the high costs of implementation will limit its uptake and therefore its impact on the wider food supply chain.’

Instead, with British growers at the forefront of technological developments that improve quality, yield, environmental protection and energy use, according to the NFU, ‘it is crucial that retailers ensure they also invest and support the farmers that supply them with large, field-scale crops such as root vegetables, where vertical farming is not realistic.’

The NFU Mutual’s Mr Yorke agrees it’s early days and that, ‘at present, the technology is not suited to all crops; leafy greens work well but cereals and fruits are a challenge.’

Overall, however, he believes the future of sustainable food production lies very much in integrating vertical farming into a wider mix that also includes other ground-breaking tools, such as digital soil mapping systems, robotic micro-sprayers or livestock sensors, that support land-based agriculture and help make it more productive and eco-friendly at the same time.

‘We don’t see vertical farming replacing traditional farming methods — rather we see it complementing farming and maximising spaces which may have previously been seen as non-agricultural,’ he says, quoting, as an example, Growing Underground, a micro-green and salad producer operating 108 feet below the streets of Clapham, in London. ‘It is one of a number of innovations which are already demonstrating alternatives to conventional field-based production.’