Controlled-environment-agriculture (CEA) is a specialised sub-sector of vertical farming and involves the growing of produce indoors, under controlled conditions. This allows for produce to be grown year-round, much closer to end-consumers, and in particular locations that would otherwise not be possible due to climate restrictions. The added benefit of growing indoors using technology is that crops can be safeguarded from pests and disease, meaning no pesticide use, and importantly, the controlled conditions allow for a significant increase in yield per m3, lower water consumption (of up to 95%) when compared to a conventional farm or even a glasshouse.
The main objective of Vertical Future, the London-based Controlled Environment Agriculture company that was founded in 2016, is to improve overall population health and to reduce food and health-related inequalities. Vertical Future delivers on this by using technology and data to build a better, smarter food system.
Food security and the overall sustainability of our food system have become hot topics in recent years, and even prior to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the fragility of our global food system was becoming apparent. We live in a world where pesticide-use is universally accepted (even in organic produce), supply chain-related waste is sometimes as high as 50%, and in some countries, food-related transportation accounts for approximately one-third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Farming practices are also invariably labour-intensive and place a heavy reliance on local or overseas, seasonal labour.
There are two major limiting factors that are driving much of this: location and climate. Using traditional methods of growing fresh produce places limitations on what can be grown, when it can be grown, and where it can be grown, creating a misalignment with demand. In regions like the Middle East, where there is little or no arable land in many areas, there is little choice but to rely on global supply chains. However more broadly, even in countries where there is sufficient arable land, there is still a significant reliance on food imports. This is because consumers are broadly unwilling to be driven by seasonality and expect year-round supply of food – across many food groups and categories.