‘We don’t have the land’. With the aid of a rosy-red apple, Professor Colin Campbell demonstrates the challenge of feeding the 8.3 billion people likely to inhabit planet Earth within the next 12 years.
It’s a moment of theatre in a morning of cutting edge science. One apple. Two men: Campbell, the CEO of James Hutton Institute, and David Farquhar, CEO of Intelligent Growth Solutions. Like a pair of magicians they face media cameras and a small invited audience here to see the opening of Scotland’s first vertical farm.
But first: the apple, which represents the Earth. Three quarters of it are swiftly discarded as Farquhar wields the knife according to Campbell’s instructions – they represent the surface of our globe covered by water. The remaining quarter is sliced in four and three quarters of that are also discarded: too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, or covered with roads and cities. All that is left is one small piece, 1/32 of the apple. “Now, peel it please…”
…the skin represents the topsoil on which all the food is grown that must feed the people on the planet.
Even this is an exaggeration. If you imagined this was a waxed apple and you could peel off the layer of wax this would be closer representation of the thin layer of soil we all depend on. Professor Colin Campbell [see HERE for full speech]
Which is why there’s a mix of urgency and excitement outside the anonymous industrial shed at Invergowrie on the edge of Dundee. The two storey building based at the James Hutton Institute represents a local triumph of innovation with global implications.
“…arguably the world’s most technically advanced indoor facility,” Farquhar tells the audience. IGS, a Scottish-based agritech business, is proud to be showing how they will be “collaborating with growers, retailers and international organisations to deliver the hardware and software platforms to revolutionise indoor growing environments.”
Into the future
A small robotic trolley weaves among the guests displaying pots of aromatic, bright green basil. The new jobs promised by this innovation are in software, data, engineering, robotics and automation. The first crops are fast grown, high-value herbs. Green shoots of new enterprise.
As we wait in the air lock to get our first glimpse of vertical cultivation, I wonder what my farming forebears would make of it. My grandmother’s hill farm overlooking Loch Foyle in Northern Ireland belonged to a different time: hay was stacked in stooks, cows ambled in from hoof-churned fields at milking time, my aunts raced against the weather to harvest winter crops. But farming has already changed beyond recognition. The landscape of the fertile Carse of Gowrie wears protective clothing as food growers must combat the challenges of an increasingly unpredictable climate; green fields and gentle hills covered in poly tunnels and sheets of fleece.
Inside Scotland’s first vertical farm there are no sudden storms, fickle frosts or airborne pests and diseases. In the space-age glow of red, green, purple LED illumination, plants photosynthesise energy without need of the sun. Every aspect of the growing environment – light, temperature, humidity, nutrition, air composition – is micro-managed using the principles of Total Controlled Environment Agriculture (TCEAL). Computerised controls – which may ultimately be managed by the responses of the plants themselves – ensure constantly adjustable conditions for growing without the interruption of seasons.
And there’s another benefit. Plants don’t need constant light to grow, a factor which intrigues the scientists who are conducting experiments to determine how intermittent light – and what sort of light – affects the health and growth of the plant. It also means IGS can exploit lower energy costs of interruptible supply.
Food for thought
Back in the marquee, minds are boggling. In a world sorely starved of feel-good news it’s fun to experience a childlike delight in a mood of optimism. It seems to infect everyone we speak to, old school farmers along with scientists, civil servants, politicians and the press invited for the official launch. John Swinney, the local MSP (the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills represents Perthshire North) reveals the plaque on the wall.
No need for farmers to feel threatened. TCEAL will not replace traditional agriculture – not all plants can be grown indoors – but it can speed research and production of healthy new varieties for the outdoors, while also greatly reducing waste and pollution in the lengthy food chain from grower to consumer.
“It beggars belief, I have to be honest,” JHI’s Derek Stewart tells the BBC. As Business Sector Lead: Agrifood he specialises in studying the (bio) circular links of growing and consuming food and drink. ”The advances we are seeing in the ability to control how the crops grow, the speed they grow, the quality that they can manipulate…”
Over canapés flavoured with IGS-grown herbs and salad leaves, we savour the possibilities. For crop research, for medicine, for agriculture, for commercial development, for food security, for technology, for smarter use of electricity. For new jobs and (with enough political will) for revitalised and healthier communities. Not just increasing production of food but also reducing waste, eliminating pesticides and enabling inner city farming – not only ‘just in time’ but also ‘just in place’.
Or, as JHI chair, James Curran (@curranjc), tweets later: ‘brilliant & smart vertical farm @JamesHuttonInst site. Huge potential to feed people from low-energy, low-impact, high-productivity installations in cities or on vacant/derelict land. Disruptive technology.’
Formal opening by @JohnSwinney of https://t.co/KkZuGgDwPn brilliant & smart vertical farm @JamesHuttonInst site. Huge potential to feed people from low-energy, low-impact, high-productivity installations in cities or on vacant/derelict land. Disruptive technology. pic.twitter.com/Y8PtsLv6Pw
— james curran (@curranjc) August 24, 2018
Another frontier – can Scotland boldly grow?
But there’s another reason for the sense of urgency. This synergy of JHI plant science and IGS technology is an exciting demonstration of Scotland’s ability to research, produce and ‘productivise’ advanced systems of global importance. The location at Invergowrie, deliberately chosen to enable continuing close collaboration, has another advantage – just a mile or so up the Tay the opening of the V&A symbolises a new era of post-industrial creativity.
Scottish innovation and Scottish science have again led the world with something that has massive economic potential. Professor Colin Campbell
Colin Campbell’s concluding message is part of a courageous and imaginative view of the future. But it needs equally bold and imaginative investment of hard cash to realise the full potential. That point was strongly made by Professor Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) after his enthusiastic first visit to the IGS unit at Invergowrie earlier this year: “Will Scotland be the place that the world turns to as the great innovator in vertical farming, like Finland has been for mobile phone technology?” He asks in an article published in Sceptical Scot. “This will only happen if the major capital investments needed to turn this into an industrial reality are made in Scotland.”
Where will the money come from? Could the yet-to-be-announced £1.6bn Tay City Deal provide some of that crucial investment? Questions hang in the air. They do not dampen the excitement but they add to the sense of urgency around the huge possibilities growing inside one small shed.
Modern agriculture faces a number of challenges, which will only be exacerbated as climate and population conditions change. These include water scarcity, land use and the problems associated with monoculture, the use of pesticides and their impacts on health and the natural environment: Henry Ackroyd Founder and Director of Intelligent Growth Solutions