Sparking interest in community vertical farming

By Professor Katherine Denby, N8 AgriFood Academic Lead at the University of York, and Fix Our Food Lead for Grow It York

In this blog I will focus on indoor vertical farming under controlled environmental conditions.

Vertical farming is a sector on the rise. It involves growing fresh produce on walls or in stacked beds – these can be outdoors where the climate permits, or indoors under natural or controlled lighting conditions. Plants are typically grown without soil on matting and irrigated using hydroponics or aeroponics. In hydroponic systems plant roots are submerged in nutrient solution (often with cycles of submergence) whereas aeroponics uses technology to spray the plant roots with a fine mist. Aquaponics combines hydroponics with aquaculture to provide fertiliser to the plants from the fish waste.

Indoor vertical farming will not replace existing agricultural methods for food production but has much to contribute to developing a food system that delivers healthy, affordable, accessible diets from a healthy planet and supports a thriving and equitable food economy. Vertical farming systems significantly reduce the water use for production; water is recycled in the system and directly applied to plant roots. The indoor farm is protected from the weather and can deliver produce the year round. Often farms are located close to food businesses that will use the produce or consumers who directly buy, greatly reducing the distance food needs to travel and helping support localised supply chains which can be more resilient in the face of global shocks, such as Covid 19, or significant changes to international trade as we have seen with the UK’s EU exit. Localised production and supply chains also promote the local economy; money is spent locally and the vertical farm can stimulate local enterprises such as food processors and retail. Shorter supply chains impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions too – a recent analysis (EDGAR-FOOD*) demonstrated that the GHG emissions associated with food transport, cold chain and packaging were considerable (~5% total emissions each) and what’s more, have increased since 1990. Reducing food waste at all parts of the supply chain is a vital component of sustainable agriculture with the level of control in vertical farming meaning minimal loss during production, and the short growing cycles from controlled lighting giving farms the flexibility to adapt to changing produce demands.

A major component of agriculture’s GHG emissions results from the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser (the manufacturing process causes significant CO2 and NO2 release). Vertical farming technology greatly reduces the use of synthetic fertiliser along with little or no use of agri chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides. However, the often cited drawback of vertical farming in controlled environments is the high energy use (per kg of produce) for lighting and climate control. The GHG emissions associated with an indoor vertical farm depend on the LED lighting efficiency but most significantly on the source of energy being used (renewable versus non renewable). With renewable energy sources, GHG emissions from vertical farming can be significantly lower than traditional greenhouse horticulture production in many countries.

One of the most significant contributions that vertical farming has the potential to address is land use efficiency and public health outcomes from our food system. Over 70% of the UK’s land is already used for agriculture and whilst traditionally agriculture has been a rural affair, vertical farming offers the potential for production of fresh produce in urban areas. Vertical farms have high yield per area meaning viable farms can be sited in areas with limited space and/or high land value. Rapid urbanisation is a global phenomenon and with a common neglect of food in urban planning has led to the development of urban food insecurity. Food deserts abound – neighbourhoods with limited access to affordable healthy food, where available food outlets are typically convenience stores and fast food shops with imperishable and often highly processed food – contributing to obesity and micronutrient deficiencies. Locating vertical farms within food deserts can improve access to nutritious food and can increase citizen’s agency within the food system. Closer connection between producers and consumers provides greater transparency about production and promotes enhanced consumption of fresh produce. This will require community engagement around sustainable diets and food systems, as well as affordability of the produce

Vertical farms are popping up around the world and York is no exception – we have recently started Grow It York, a vertical farm located within a shipping container in Spark York, a CIC in the centre of York. We want Grow It York to empower the local community around fresh produce – reducing transport, waste and packaging of fresh produce for local food businesses, increasing access to quality nutritious food, providing educational opportunities and engaging the community in building a sustainable food system. We are using Grow It York for more than just food production; to explore how we best integrate vertical farming into urban communities for social, economic and environmental benefits.

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Improved agricultural innovation with farmer co-development

By Dr Thomas McNamara, Postdoctoral Research Engineer, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, University of Manchester

By recognising farmers’ knowledge and including them in the innovation process, rather than simply treating them as end testers, a more effective and efficient innovation route can be created.

The IKnowFood project

Funded by the Global Food Security Programme, the IKnowFood project aims to develop an improved and unified understanding of food system resilience through four research themes. Within this, theme one aims to identify new methods that could build the innovation knowledge and skills of farmers, in addition to creating technologies that are more fit for purpose within a farm context.

On-farm innovation is broadly seen as a one-sided process. Individuals and organisations separate to the farm create new and more effective technologies or procedures. These innovations are then checked and validated before being passed onto the farmers, who then use or action them in their day-to-day operations. What the innovation should do, what its success criteria are, and the majority of its features, are determined out of the context of the farm. This is beneficial from an innovation standpoint, as new innovations are not constrained by current practices or set-ups. Additionally, experts can deploy specialist knowledge to the farm through the innovation itself.

The problem with this model, however, is that the domain knowledge of farmers, both in terms of their agricultural and day-to-day operations, is not recognised or used. There is little opportunity for the farmers’ knowledge to contribute towards the innovation. This reduces both the likelihood of innovation adoption, due to the innovation not fitting into the farming context and results in innovations being identified as flawed at a later stage, which in turn is an inefficient use of resources. No two innovations are the same, but to not incorporate farmers into the innovation process until the point at which the innovation is largely complete, misses out on a potentially more direct and effective path.

The co-creation method

In order to involve farmers from the inception of an idea through to the testing of an on-farm innovation, we met with two groups of farmers over three years. These groups were based in North Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders. Each group had meetings with us independent of the other until the final year when they came together for a joint meeting to share and demonstrate what they had developed.

The meetings were conducted in three phases:

1. Mutual understanding and trust-building
2. Ideation
3. Testing and validation

All meetings had a facilitator and a research engineer present to represent the research team, with external specialists occasionally being invited to answer specific points previously raised by the farmers.

The first phase of mutual understanding saw us meet three times with each group of farmers to better understand them, their farms and how they operated. The farmers equally developed their understanding of how research is conducted and how new technologies and procedures are created. In addition to the cohesive benefits this stage brought, it was necessary to create a different, more balanced power dynamic, compared to what the farmers were used to. Later on in the process, one of the farmers reflected and said “I think it’s really nice and sort of strange that somebody’s made something for us as opposed to accepting whatever we usually have to purchase or get. It’s a totally different way around of thinking”.

With a shared understanding and recognition of domain knowledge, the ideation stage saw both groups create, list and prioritise issues that were pain points during farming. Some of these issues couldn’t be addressed, but after iterating over four meetings, we had a shortlist of innovations that could be created within the time available, would work from a technical perspective and would operate within the context of the farm. Rather than reaching from academia to the farm, we had met in the middle, identifying innovations that had been sense checked from both sides.

The innovations

In total six innovations were identified and progressed, with two independent issues, (one from each group of farmers) having the same root cause and so being addressed by the same innovation. The overlapping issues related to recording large amounts of livestock data, but being unable to surface the basic, useful information outdoors, such as recurring lameness, animal weights and treatments. This resulted in farmers collecting detailed livestock information, recording it in software, before re-recording ‘in-field’ livestock data on paper notes. These paper notes then became their main reference when outdoors. Apart from double data entry, these paper notes were also prone to being damaged, lost or out of date, leading to a significant amount of time being lost.

To address the problem, we created a simple application that ran on the farmer’s phones. This application records written notes and associates them with a keyword, such as an animal’s ear tag number. Simply typing in the animal’s tag number then recalls all the notes made by anyone on the farm about that animal. This provides a way to create backed-up, synchronised and easily accessible ad-hoc notes across the farm. These notes can also be easily copied from the application to the desired database, saving time transcribing paper notes.

The second application based innovation was centred around lone worker safety. During discussions, it became evident that lone working was a known and significant risk, and that it remained largely unmitigated in some scenarios. Solutions had been trialled, but none were found to be appropriate for their needs. They either didn’t work effectively due to human error or had been designed for other sectors.

One of these scenarios was lone working with livestock, late at night, in the sheds and outbuildings. The farmers had trialled solutions designed for the energy sector, but these typically required a GPS signal that could not be acquired inside a building. Others required the user to manually check-in and out, but due to the hours and workload, users often forgot and either worked unprotected or triggered false alarms.

The innovation developed to address this was the Lone Worker Safety (LWS) application. This application detects when a farmer is in an area of potential harm and automatically monitors them to make sure they are okay. Should they become stationary for too long and not respond to the audible alarms and notifications, the application sends out emergency messages to predetermined contacts that are in a position to assist.

The alarm can be manually triggered and there are numerous settings to accommodate many on-farm activities allowing farmers to customise it for their situation. It has been designed to be simple to use and only requires an Android phone and a Wi-Fi hub, with the Wi-Fi hub not needing an internet connection of its own. The Wi-Fi hub is first set-up in the lone working area, when the user’s phone then connects to the hub, the phone determines it is in the lone working area triggering it to automatically start monitoring the user. When the user then leaves the area, the opposite occurs, triggering the phone to stop its safety monitoring. We are in the final stages of making the LWS application available on the Google Play Store so that farmers far beyond the groups involved with the IKnowFood project can benefit.

Our aim is to demonstrate that when farmers are involved in on-farm innovations, as co-developers rather than end testers, very real issues can be overcome with components as available as phones and old Wi-Fi hubs. If farmers were involved in co-development much more widely, we believe that they could make a significant contribution to agricultural innovation.

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‘Bouncing back better’ from COVID-19 requires overcoming systemic lock-ins

By Professor Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology, University of Reading and Senior Fellow, Defra Systems Research Programme

What will the impacts of COVID-19 be on the environment?

As I write this blog, analyses of UK datasets since lockdown from March 2020 to the current day have shown major reductions in greenhouses gases and significant improvements in air quality in terms of nitrous oxides. (However, levels of fine particulate matter showed less change.)

There have also been many reports in popular media of wildlife benefitting from the lower human activity levels. These benefits were always going to be short-lived during the lockdown. They demonstrate what is possible, but unfortunately they are not worth celebrating as a sustainable achievement for environmental protection.

To do so, would be a bit like holding your breath and suggesting it proves you don’t need oxygen. As governments struggle to get national economic sustainability back on track, these environmental sustainability gains are quickly lost. We have seen this with the gradual creeping up of air pollution levels since lockdown has lifted.

What about in the longer term? What might happen to environmental quality as we recover from the pandemic? There is lots of talk about transformative responses to the coronavirus crisis, as this European Joint Research Centre report discusses.

Beyond optimistic rhetoric though, it is quite possible that our socioeconomic system could return to a broadly similar configuration. The graph below shows what happened with global greenhouse gas emissions after the 2008 financial crash.

Even though the system was perturbed and CO2 emissions temporarily reduced, certain factors ensured the return of the globalised socioeconomic system to its previous structural configuration.

Of course, let’s not be all doom and gloom; some aspects of our socioeconomic systems may well get better after COVID-19. The lockdown seems to have seen increased public engagement with nature.

Analysis shows strong links between access to greenspace and both physical and mental health during lockdown, further reinforcing our previous understanding of the important relationship between greenspace and well-being. And, if these higher levels of nature engagement stick that will be a great thing.

Graph showing what happened with global greenhouse gas emissions after the 2008 financial crash

Equally, however, some things could get worse than before the COVID-19 pandemic. One worrying issue for the environment sector is the economy. The environment can end up near the bottom of the priority list during economic recession when it gets seen as a ‘luxury’.

That seems to be happening again, at least in some countries where economic stimulus packages have not been very ‘green’ and have instead propped up environmentally harmful industries. For example, China has relaxed environmental rules and the USA has allowed companies to break pollution laws.

Therefore, it’s crucial to articulate the importance of a healthy environment. This is especially pertinent in the UK because the compounding urgency to strike trade deals after Brexit could mean food sustainability standards are lowered. Hence, the UK environmental footprint risks getting even bigger.

How can this be tackled? One important aspect is to better understand the factors that keep socioeconomic systems locked into unsustainable trajectories. A first step is developing common language to allow the essential crosstalk between different academic disciplines around system transformations.

A recent study from an international workshop I was involved in found that many different terms are used to describe when a system is stuck in a ‘bad’ trajectory with these including ‘inertia’, ‘socioecological trap’ and ‘perverse resilience’. The term ‘lock-in’ was most broadly understood across disciplines.

‘Lock in’ mechanisms, often comprising negative feedback loops, ensure the return of the socioeconomic system to its previous configuration even in the face of perturbations. They can be structural, regulatory or legislative factors, knowledge constraints, vested interests influencing power dynamics, sociocultural factors, or all the above and more. Understanding these diverse lock-in mechanisms is key to being able to transform systems, as we have found for overcoming undesirable resilience in the global food system.

To enable a genuine green recovery from COVID-19, lock-ins that need to be overcome include structural factors, such as the perverse subsidies we pay for farming. In addition to this, significant lock-ins also occur at the level of individual mindsets and attitudes. These are fundamentally important, as ultimately it is people’s mindsets that support or disrupt the prevailing socioeconomic structure and set the ‘rules of the game’, as systems thinker Donella Meadows puts it.

In a global recession, the dominant policy and media discourse is often about economic growth, yet we need to convey how environmental sustainability is essential to underpin economic stability, as well as human health.

Such arguments lend weight to the narrative of why we need transformation to a new post-COVID-19 food system that is both environmentally and economically sustainable whilst at the same time provides nutritious and affordable food. Focussing on mindsets and attitudes also allows us to understand and influence how dietary choice and consumption patterns are key factors that must change to enable positive system transformation.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 presents a window of opportunity for a more sustainable future. Reconfiguring our socioeconomic systems for lasting positive change, however, needs more than pretty words. It needs to be a substantial coordinated effort on lock-in mechanisms at both structural and deeper psychological levels.

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Herbicide resistance and tackling the challenge of sustainable food production

By Bárbara Pinho, MSc Science Communication Student, University of Sheffield

The sustainable production of food is a challenge yet to be accomplished. Agriculture uses 70% of all fresh water and produces a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, as well as leads to biodiversity loss and soil degradation.

Producing food sustainably is a challenge we must tackle in order to feed the generations to come. According to the United Nations, the world population is expected to reach an astonishing 9.7 billion by 2050. Putting it simply, more people means more mouths to feed in the future.

However, with no new land to explore, increased urbanisation and a rising sea level (which reduces land availability), growing food to feed almost 10 billion people is far from an easy task. This is where science may be of help.

For decades, scientific research has been developing tools and strategies to grow increasing amounts of food in shorter periods of time. One particular discovery revolutionised how farmers grow food worldwide: herbicides.

Research and herbicides

When herbicides were created amid the Second World War, they provided farmers with cost-effective and quick methods to kill invasive species, commonly known as weeds. However, as years went by, these chemicals stopped being as effective due to a process called herbicide resistance.

Weeds that are exposed to the same type of herbicides, sooner or later, resist said herbicides. They can resist due to genetic alterations (such as mutations) or multiple molecular strategies to counteract a herbicide mode of action. This ultimately leads to weeds surviving and damaging entire crops while jeopardising yield production.

This is a global issue. At the time of writing, there were 262 species resistant to herbicides worldwide. In the UK, 20,000 farms have resistant black-grass, the most common weed in the UK. This is estimated to cause the loss of 0.82 million tonnes of wheat which in turn costs £0.38 billion in lost income to farmers.

These costs are not limited to just farmers though. If we don’t find solutions to guarantee a stable wheat production, we may eventually experience price spikes in certain products. In addition to this, the consequences of herbicide resistance threaten achieving the objective of feeding almost 10 billion people by 2050. What was already difficult, just got considerably more complicated.

Solving herbicide resistance

To address this issue, current research is exploring multiple strategies. At the University of Sheffield, Professor Robert Freckleton, who teaches Population Biology, described herbicide resistance as a “very difficult” issue to solve:

“It may be that the evolution of resistance to herbicides – or any biocide including antibiotics, fungicides, insecticides or cancer drugs – is inevitable.”

Most research at the University of Sheffield has been focusing on gauging the impact of herbicide resistance on farmers.

The Black-Grass Resistance Initiative

Wheat in fieldBetween 2014 and 2017, researchers from Sheffield together with other academics from Rothamsted Research, the Zoological Society of London, Newcastle University and the University of York launched the Black-Grass Resistance Initiative.

Among other goals, this project aimed to “unravel herbicide resistance in black-grass from gene to field”.

Through this project, the researchers were aiming to understand how some resistance mechanisms develop in weeds.

They also monitored black-grass in fields and interviewed farmers to design new management strategies to tackle resistant weeds.

In addition, this research estimated how herbicide resistance impacts both the economy and the environment.

These impact assessments lead the multi-institutional team to develop new management strategies in conjunction with farmers. The suggestions were mainly designed to delay herbicide resistance, through non-chemical techniques, as Professor Freckleton later explained:

“The best tactic is to slow or delay [herbicide resistance] and that can be done by relying on a diversity of control tactics. ‘Cultural control’ includes using tillage, crop rotation and other forms of weed control. Vigilance with monitoring and testing is important though. In many cases, it is too late to do anything by the time the problem has emerged and got out of hand.”

Crop science and new herbicides

While the obvious solution to tackle herbicide resistance would be to use fewer herbicides, this may be an unrealistic scenario. Farmers have been using herbicides and pesticides for decades to grow more food, as fast as possible. While it would be ideal to stop using chemicals in farming practice, Professor Ari Sadanandom from Durham University doesn’t think it’s feasible to ask that of farmers:

“I don’t think [stopping the use of herbicides] is a good way of moving forward; otherwise, how could you control weeds? Unless you clear all the soil of all the weed seeds, it’s not plausible, I think.”

At Durham University, research to bring solutions that tackle herbicide resistance reaches many different areas.

“Some people are working on fundamental plant science involving crops and they could generate new solutions. Other researchers are working with barley whilst others are working on cold stress and heat stress. The knowledge they get from these tests could be used to control weeds. The Chemistry Department is also working with new herbicides and focusing on making new products,” described Professor Sadanandom.

His research is more focused on studying fungal diseases in crops via cell biology. Still, he believes this to be a transferable area into herbicide-resistant yields. “I may start working with black-grass in the future because we may be able to bring some techniques that we’ve learned in the fungicide resistance world.”

Whether it be through new management strategies or making new herbicides, research is playing a key role in tackling a major threat to food security.

If we’re to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 and even more in the decades to come, new strategies and techniques to complement farming practice may soon become the norm for farmers worldwide.

This blog was written as part of ‘The Path of Leaf Resistance’ project, which aims to raise awareness of herbicide resistance. Both this blog and the website are part of an MSc in Science Communication project conducted by Bárbara Pinho and supervised by Professor Robert Freckleton at the University of Sheffield.

All data collected for the project will serve the purpose of research on public engagement with the topic of herbicide resistance. This YouTube video has been created as part of the project to raise awareness and develop understanding of the issue of herbicide resistance.

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The current situation: COVID-19, urban agriculture and the need to change the food system

By Jacob Nickles, N8 AgriFood Knowledge Exchange Fellow, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield

We are living in one of the most challenging times many of us will have had in our lives. While COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our day-to-day lives, it has highlighted just how delicate our food system is.

In my role as not only a researcher, but a small food business operator, I have seen multiple indicators of just how sensitive the system is, with fluctuations in price and stocking uncertainty. COVID-19 has really emphasised the need to not only change the food system, but also how quickly changes in behaviour can immediately affect the environment.

This situation has provided us with the evidence to reinforce the message that we need to focus on looking at how we can produce more of our own food, to do it sustainably and to do it securely. We have the capacity to produce much more of our own food within cities, bringing food security home to local areas by harnessing the idea of urban agriculture.

Over the coming months, as the UK comes to terms with the new distanced way of life, I expect we’ll come to understand some of the broader implications to our current food system, especially when we look at farm labour and its availability or lack thereof. Now is the time to embrace urban agriculture through optimising labour, resources and space, to bring experts together to discuss their challenges, as well as work out constructive solutions and implement substantive change. We need to be able to build resilience into the system, so that in times of crisis we can all afford to eat without facing price fluctuations or reduced product availability.

One way we can help with this, is by providing the public with the tools and knowledge to grow their own food, by simplifying non-traditional growing systems and encouraging the boosted community spirit. Two current projects with these aims in mind run by the University of Sheffield’s newly-launched Institute for Sustainable Food are the Tinsley Urban Farm Knowledge Market and the Resilience Food Project.

The Tinsley Urban Farm Knowledge Market will continue to build on the success of the urban farm within the old junior school in Tinsley. Some questions have been raised about the future of the site given recent problems, particularly around the availability of government and local funding. However, the University of Sheffield has agreed to support the future direction of the Urban Farm, shifting forward towards an educational facility for local school children, undergraduates and apprentices.

In the coming months (COVID-19 safety dependent), the team will be working on the launch of a local market onsite, where local artisans, craftspeople and experts will be invited to sell goods and deliver training. During the course of this launch event, the site will play host to a number of workshops, intended to cover many areas from entry level gardening, to cooking with home grown produce and everything in between.

The event will also focus on building partnerships, with the University of Sheffield facilitating links between community and commercial organisations and local government. The aim of the event will be to bring life back into the former Victorian school and increase access to food for local residents, whilst developing future urban agriculture plans to meet commercial demand.

The Resilience Food Project will see the creation of financially self-supporting aquaponic micro-farms in unused or under-used urban spaces of Sheffield that offer a localised high tech intensive food production method. The micro-farms, designed and manufactured in Sheffield (including the electronics!), draw on the very latest research from the University’s departments of Computer Science (Internet of Things, control systems and data analytics), Animal & Plant Science (microbiome control) and Chemistry (novel substrates for soil-free farming), as well as a number of local commercial, council and community partners.

Furthermore, the Department of Geography and The Urban Institute are working on widening our connection into stakeholders, community groups and city initiatives including responses to the recently declared Climate Emergency and the Sheffield City Region Energy Strategy.

The project aims to address some of the big questions around aquaponics and urban agriculture such as financial viability and cost, resource-efficiency, and environmental impact relative to conventional agriculture and supermarkets. The intention of the project is to gather evidence that could be used to stimulate investor confidence in the new technology. It also aims to evaluate ‘rainbow revenue streams’ to ensure financial sustainability, for example supplementing income from food production with other sources of income, as well as explore ways to involve communities in the co-production of farms and food particularly in more disadvantaged areas. In addition to this, it aims to understand the benefits to communities and individuals of involvement in urban agriculture in terms of health, wellbeing, community cohesion, prosperity and employment.

When considering the role urban agriculture can play in the food system, there are so many questions to be answered. How much food could feasibly be produced in the UK’s cities? What are the most efficient methods to use? How much would it cost? What resources would be needed? What are the regulatory and policy implications? There are barriers to the uptake of urban agriculture and its potential for food production on a significant scale. High among them is a lack of research in this field.

At the University of Sheffield, we are looking at food security through multidisciplinary lenses. We are also seeking to work alongside city councils, entrepreneurs, social enterprises, farmers, big business, other institutions and the general public, in order to significantly change the food system. To create the changes needed, the whole system must be considered, and this means moving well outside our siloed comfort zones and building relationships within the wider community to co-design solutions in order to achieve successful outcomes.

You can find out more on the Institute for Sustainable Food website. Updates will be added as the projects progress.

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