Partnership with Liberty aims to shape future of UK agriculture

Vertical farming is a relative newcomer to the agricultural industry, the idea having been first proposed in the late 20th century by Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University in the US. There are strongly held opinions on the viability and sustainability of vertical farming as a commercial concept, however, its objective of maximising production within a given growing space by stacking growing areas vertically one above another is still valid. Due to increasing urbanisation and development, more arable land is being lost each day and CHAP is working to discover how vertical farming can help shape the future of agriculture.

Crop Health and Protection (CHAP) has a remit to champion innovative farming methods to ensure the world’s growing population can eat nutritious affordable food. Controlled environment agriculture is an integral part of that future food security. This case study highlights some of the groundbreaking work being carried out in this area by CHAP and its partners.

In September 2018, CHAP and the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) organised a ‘Bid Development Masterclass’ at Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC), focused on the first of Innovate UK’s Transforming Food Production (TFP) R&D funding calls scheduled for autumn 2018. TFP addressed the challenge of increasing agricultural productivity while lowering environmental impact and waste. Areas of focus included novel production systems such as protected environments that were highly efficient and minimised energy use and inputs.

Brainstorming opportunity

As CHAP had recently opened its Vertical Farm Development Centre at STC, this was an ideal opportunity to bring key stakeholders together in the Controlled Environment and Urban Farming space; to introduce them to the CHAP capability, current funding opportunities and to provide advice and expertise from the KTN and CHAP on what makes a successful application. Most importantly a key aspect of the day was brainstorming potential project ideas for submission to the call.

Several ideas were discussed on the day and as a result, a consortium of 11 partners, led by a company called Liberty Produce and including CHAP, STC and several leading vertical farming SMEs, submitted an application,which resulted in a £1.3m TFP grant for a project to accelerate the development of the UK vertical farming sector.

Liberty Produce is a farming technology company, enabling the growth of local produce year-round, using a fully-controlled, industry-leading, indoor vertical farming system. With expertise in lighting and nutrient delivery technology, Liberty develops and builds systems that reduce operational costs and improve yields of crops grown in controlled-environment farms. Its vision is to drive innovations that will enable the UK to meet our food requirements over the next century, without harming the planet. The grant is being used to support the creation of the Innovation Hub for Controlled Environment Farming (IHCEA). This is an integrated technology system focused on reducing operational costs by 25%, improving crop yield by 30% and reducing necessary grower intervention through improved decision support and automation in lighting, nutrient and environmental control technologies.

Cutting costs and growing yields

The potential benefits to both industry and the consumer of producing food more through vertical farming include the fact that the growing environment is not affected by the external climate and conditions. The plant ‘factories’ can be built in almost any location, as neither solar light nor soil is needed, only electricity, nutrients, water and seeds. Vertical farming methods allow the optimisation of the supply of water and nutrients to the root zone, and reduce the use of resources, including water, energy, space, capital and labour. Crops can be grown year-round, with several crops being harvested in a year and with greater yields than traditional broad-acre production.

Other benefits driving growth in vertical farming include the minimal (if any) use of pesticides, the ability to grow crops close to, or within, urban areas and the reduced impact on the environment.

A step-change

Co-founder of Liberty Produce, Zeina Chapman, said: “This project will provide step-change advances towards enabling vertical farming technologies. These systems could reduce water usage, eliminate the use of agrochemicals and provide year-round local production. For many crops, vertical farming is currently on the cusp of commercial viability. Improved technology in this sector will increase the adoption of these sustainable food growing systems, reduce the environmental impact of crop production, improve food security and create opportunities for the growth and export of UK agricultural technologies.”

CHAP CEO Fraser Black added: “CHAP is delighted to be working in partnership with Liberty Produce and we are looking forward to helping them forge a position as a leading technology developer in controlled-environment agriculture.We are looking forward to seeing how the work done by the IHCEA capability can help meet the challenges of the commercial aspects of vertical farming, to make it a viable business with better energy and nutrient use and a broader spectrum of nutritious crops being grown year-round.”

CHAP and Liberty Produce have now installed their joint commercial demonstrator system, the IHCEA, at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, to accelerate the growth of UK vertical farming. This system, funded by InnovateUK and designed specifically for research and development, will enable industry to understand and tackle the barriers to adoption of new vertical farming technologies. The central goal of the IHCEA is to give the wider agricultural market the space to develop, test, integrate technologies which can help optimise CEA so the benefits of this approach can be realised. It will help to achieve the goal of ensuring vertical farming is commercially viable and is able to grow an increased variety of crops.

For more information on Liberty Produce and CHAP’s IHCEA, check out the Controlled Environment Agriculture or go to our Focus on Vertical Farming  on the Solutions tab, or visit www.liberty-produce.com


For any further information about Liberty Produce, the IHCEA capability, or to discuss a collaboration and/or grant for a commercially funded project, please complete the form below.