The last of our four-part series examines some of technologies being developed to improve efficiency and bring down food costs.
After energy bills, food is the next biggest concern for most families’ budgets, and the constant increase in supermarket prices since last year has led some to call for government intervention. Laura Rettie, editor of Finance.co.uk, is among those who argue there is something “fundamentally wrong” with the market.
“It’s worrying that food prices in this country aren’t regulated,” she said recently. “We know it’s not the farmers who are hiking food prices – so who’s looking at the supermarkets and what they’re choosing to charge?
“It’s not good enough that certain supermarkets have such a large share of the market – the government desperately needs to review how food prices are managed in this country.”
Others aren’t so sure. Stuart McCallum, head of food and drink at accountancy group RSM, said countries such as Egypt have capped the price of bread to consumers, but they have “far different” markets to that of the UK.
“I think it would be very, very difficult to put in place a mechanism where the [UK] government stepped in and capped the price of what would have to be commodity products, so bread or milk – but nothing I guess is impossible,” he said.
“We saw the government do many things that we never thought were possible through Covid, so you can never bet against it, but I just think the natural competition that we’ve got, and the size of the market, and the choice the consumer has, should give people a good price.”
He highlights an appetite within the sector to adopt technology to improve efficiency, which is something that Edinburgh-based Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) is aiming to provide with its vertical farming systems. The company, headed by chief executive David Farquhar, maintains that its towers could make the UK self-sufficient in leafy greens and alleviate pressure on a food supply chain that is “near to breaking point”.
“These are serious, serious issues,” Mr Farquhar told The Herald. “We are worried about food security and in some cases we just cannot get the food, so that will always drive the prices up.
“If we can help by improving the supply, and taking things from serious shortage to not just being available, but at a really high quality, that is going to help bring prices down. It’s just basic food economics.”
The company’s towers have been used to successfully grow about 250 varieties of crops such as herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, chillies, strawberries, broccoli, baby carrots, radishes and seed potatoes. They have also been used to cultivate flowers and trees.
An IGS growth tower (Image: IGS)
With controlled lighting systems that emulate the seasons, IGS says it towers can operate year-round regardless of location. In addition, some crops reach maturity more quickly: a recent trial saw sequoias reaching a height of six inches within 83 days, a process that would normally take years.
“It’s fantastically exciting, because with all of the rewilding that is going on, and planting, there is a world shortage of tree seedlings,” Mr Farquhar said. “There just aren’t enough for all of these ambitious projects to plant.
“We are starting to look at fruit trees and tea and coffee, but the things we probably will never grow will be the really big cereals. You’re not going to replace a million hectares of Ukraine with vertical farms, that’s just not going to happen.”
The cost is approximately £500,000 per tower, which Mr Farquhar says can be recouped by the farmer within three to five years of operation. Electricity is the largest running cost, though this can be dramatically reduced by setting up a private wire to a renewable energy sour.
Other cost efficiencies include a reduction in water consumption and labour. “One or two people” can run a farm producing “hundreds of tonnes of crops annually”, cutting labour requirements by 80 per cent or more. Putting the towers closer to where the food is consumed reduces the expense of transportation and wastage.
Acknowledging the hefty upfront outlay required to shift the majority of UK production over to vertical farming, Mr Farquhar said: “The question is which version of hell do you want to live in? Do you want to live in the one where there is no food, or do you want to live in the one where we have to make an investment in order to get our food, and that investment pays back in less than five years?”
Among other technical avenues under exploration in Scotland is cultivated meat, which is grown in a laboratory from cells taken from a living animal. Roslin Technologies, known colloquially as Roslin Tech, secured £11m of fresh investment in November of last year to extend its cultivated meat technology from cows and pigs into other species.
The Dyneval portable testing equipment (Image: Dyneval)
In addition to eliminating the need for slaughter, growing meat in a lab reduces the amount of land, water and other resources needed. However, at a current price of nearly £8 per burger, it will be a number of years before the price of lab-grown meat falls to the extent to become a mass-market alternative.
In a bid to improve traditional rearing methods, Edinburgh-based Dyneval is developing a portable instrument for semen analysis which is says could save the industry millions each year by improving production efficiency. Meanwhile, Roslin Tech is also investing in a joint venture focused on breeding insects for protein that can be used for animal feed and fertiliser.
These solutions are at varying stages on the horizon, but with 30 of the IGS growth towers already in use and nearly 400 on order, Mr Farquhar believes vertical farming is ready to roll: “We have an economically viable model, we have happy customers successfully growing, selling and supplying crops, so this is not theoretical – it’s real.”