Urban Agriculture in the United Kingdom's Uncertain Future
- by Mark Horler
Brexit approaches. It looms upon the horizon. It is the approaching storm. Much of the media narrative around the exit of the UK from the EU reads like this. Stories abound of Britain’s lack of readiness for what lies ahead.
As the March 2019 exit date draws ever nearer, there is deep concern about what we will do, how we will cope with crossing the threshold, and what happens thereafter.
On the other hand, there are those who present entirely the opposite narrative (and who, not incidentally, won the referendum that led to Brexit in the first place).
They profess that the UK will proceed to what one government official called ‘the sunlit uplands’, where we will be bathed in glory and all will be well. Britain will return to being a global trader. We will be more prosperous, we will have control and we will build a better nation for us all, under the aegis of our restored national sovereignty.
Whatever the area of consideration, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to reconcile these two competing narratives. The truth of the matter is that we cannot know how all this complexity will unfold. We simply don’t know for certain.
But, of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t consider each policy area. Indeed, it is imperative that we do so, and in the greatest possible detail. We must ask ourselves: what do we want to achieve, why do we want to achieve that, and how will we go about doing so?
So it is with our food systems. This has been an area of quite some focus – from stories about supermarket stockpiling (or not), to a lack of seasonal agricultural workers leaving food to rot in the fields, to subsidies for marginal industries like sheep hill farming, and on to broader questions of sustainability and resilience.
The facts are these. As a nation, the UK imports a substantial percentage of its food and has done so for many years. At the same time, our agricultural policies have been tied to the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is amongst the world’s least loved bits of legislation.
So, any way you look at it, the simple truth is that the UK must entirely rethink and renew its agricultural and food policy framework. There are enormous challenges in doing so, but there are also opportunities. Which brings us to the world of ag-tech.
People often say that Britain has been slow to get going with Vertical Farming (VF) and Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). Up until relatively recently, in all honesty, I would probably have agreed.
The countries and regions where VF/CEA first took off were those where the need was most pressing. Whether it was a lack of available land in Singapore, huge transport distances for fresh produce to the cities of the US eastern seaboard, food safety concerns in China – necessity is the mother of invention after all.
The UK is generally a green and pleasant land. We have water, we don’t have horrific weather disasters, we have some farmland. Of equal importance though, is that we have been able to easily, efficiently and cheaply import our food. Whether that is from southern Europe or from beyond, it just hasn’t really been a problem for us.
Now, tariffs may soon appear on imports from the EU and complications with getting new trade deals with other countries (which have previously been covered by us being included in EU trade deals) make the future unpredictable.
At the same time, there are big questions about the sustainability of food production systems generally, both in the UK and elsewhere. Pesticides, fertiliser run-off, top soil degradation and erosion and more are becoming major concerns across the world. All of this is coupled with the stresses expected from massive urban expansion in the coming years. And of course there is the ever-present threat of climate change, which at least has the virtue that everyone who is sane agrees it is a massive worry.
On top of all of this, and at least partially because of it, many consumers are increasingly demanding that their food be more local and more sustainable.
All of which explains why the UK is no longer so behind the curve in Vertical Farming. Indeed, we are catching up fast and even pushing ahead of some countries.
A lot of media attention has recently been given to the Intelligent Growth Solutions vertical farm, just outside Dundee in Scotland. This is an exciting and ambitious project that very much deserves the coverage.
But it is far from alone. There is an expanding local and sustainable food cluster emerging in Bristol, that includes VF companies like Grow Bristol and Lettus Grow. CEA mushrooms are being grown on coffee waste in Manchester, Exeter and Essex.
And of course there is always London, where companies like Growing Underground pioneered the way forward from early on.
There is more to come too. Just across the water, the Welsh government are showing great interest in Vertical Farming, and we can expect to see major announcements there in the near future. UK based companies are also leading the way in creating CEA growing and control systems.
To capture all of this and maximise the impact, by collaborating and cooperating, an increasing number of those organizations have come together to form the UK Urban Agritech (UKUAT) collective.
Others working in aquaponics have come together under the banner of the British Aquaponics Association (BAQUA), which is in the process – ironically enough – of becoming the European Aquaponics Association.
Many people will say that vertical farming and urban ag-tech cannot solve all our food system problems. Those people are right, but they miss the point.
The rise of Smart Cities, Resilient Cities and Circular Economy Cities all point towards a more sustainable urban future, of which food simply must be a critical part. These technologies are tools. As part of a tool-kit, they can be an important part of addressing all these issues.
As our UK industries in this area grow, and as the challenges outlined in this article continue to develop, you can expect to see much more work from us all on doing exactly that.
by Mark Horler. Mark has been involved in the Vertical Farming space for around 5 years. He is the Founder of Re-growth.org, the Co-Founder of The Soya Project and the UK Urban AgriTech (UKUAT) collective. Mark’s primary interest is in taking a systemic overview of how vertical farming can be integrated with other systems, and to deliver on its promises of sustainable food production and resilient societies.