ADVANCES IN agritech, such as vertical farming, are a key element of the UK producing environmentally friendly, productive, sustainable food, which can compete on a global level.

That was the message delivered during the launch of a new ‘Innovation Hub for Controlled Environmental Agriculture’ last week at the James Hutton Institute. in Invergowrie. It will be a centre for development testing and research into next generation technologies to improve the cultivation of indoor and protected crops.

The ultimate goal of achieving all year-round productivity of healthy nutritious food, grown locally with less water, less chemicals and less land, offers great appeal to Scotland and the UK, but also globally.

Behind the innovation hub launch is farming technology company, Liberty Produce and agritech centre, Crop Health and Protection, whose chief executive, Fraser Black, commented: “The need for healthy nutritious food is ever increasing. In the next 40 years we need to produce as much food as we have produced in the last 8,000 years.”

He went on to say that with increased productivity comes a responsibility for sustainability: “Post-war we have done an incredible job of improving productivity in farming, but it has come at the cost of a decrease in biodiversity, an increase in our carbon footprint and a deterioration of soil health.

“We need to reverse that and we need research and the support of our industry to achieve this,” he stressed.

The UK imports a significant volume of fresh food and often from far afield, leaving it vulnerable to sudden price changes and to climate and weather. Mr Black added that with water becoming a scarcity across the globe and a drive for locally sourced food, that controlled environment agriculture is ‘one step in the right direction.’

Co-founder and director of Liberty Produce, Zeina Chapman, added: “Vertical farming is currently not sustainable – the cost of production compared to traditional agriculture is a limiting factor.

“The purpose of the IHCEA is to accelerate the development of sustainable food production year round, to test and evaluate new products. The collaboration between Liberty, CHAP and JHI will facilitate the transfer of knowledge from within the scientific community to tangible improvements for crop productivity which will impact everyone,” she said.

Parliamentary under secretary of state for Scotland, Colin Clark MP, attended the launch and commented: “Research, development and technological innovation through centres like the JHI are key if the UK is to compete globally.

“Not only can we lead the way in improving productivity but we can demonstrate how to best use our resources sustainably in order to reduce our environmental impact, which is key to modern agriculture.”

Taking a tour of the new facilities, vertical trays of microgreens were being grown in a controlled chamber under different LED light combinations. Experts from Liberty Produce explained that they would be testing different growing methods, such as trialling water systems and different light combinations to test the most efficient ways to produce food.

Initially, the trials will focus on micro-greens which they expect to produce around 80kg of crop, per square metre, per year.

Longer-term, the ambition is to move in to soft fruits and one day high-value medical crops, such as opioids and bio-pharmaceuticals.