University of York seeks to revolutionise sustainable farming -- from inside a shipping container


Experiments at SPARK:York seek to find the key to feeding the future

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By Shannon Reed

The UK’s farming industry has faced incredible challenges in the last five years, with economic instability, extreme weather conditions, and global supply chain shortages being a mere drop in the ocean when it comes to the future hurdles facing UK farming. A University-led project called Grow It York is developing techniques that seek to address these challenges – and it is all happening inside a shipping container at SPARK:York.

Led by Professor Katherine Denby, the Grow It York vertical farm is just one of many emerging projects seeking to regenerate the UK’s farming industry through the innovation of agricultural technology, and are part of a Yorkshire-wide collaboration dubbed FixOurFood. As a collaborator within the FixOurFood consortium, Grow It York represents a regenerative approach to farming that aims to reduce harm whilst “replenishing and restoring the planet”. According to their website, FixOurFood is one of four research consortia in the UK funded by a £47.5 million programme delivered by UK Research and Innovation seeking to transform the UK’s food systems. Funding support for the generation of more sustainable farming practices is essential for the vertical farm, where an abundance of new technology will be required to solve the problem of feeding future generations.

So what’s happening at Grow It York? The urban agriculture experiment is a collaborative project between the University of York, FixOurFood, and farming technology startup LettUs Grow that runs a vertical farm in the heart of the city – in a fluorescent pink storage container no less! Vertical farming involves growing crops indoors using LED lighting and efficient watering systems to tackle unsustainable land use, environmentally-damaging use of pesticides and other chemicals, and excessive water consumption. It is just one of many emerging agricultural practices that seeks to sustain the UK’s industry in the ever-changing economic and environmental landscape. Grow It York nurtures a variety of salad produce, with hundreds of plants stacked on top of one another to make efficient use of space. Furthermore, by harnessing the aeroponics technology developed by LettUs Grow, the farm is able to use 95 percent less fertiliser and water than traditional agriculture by using a novel approach to crop hydration.

Aeroponics is a method of growing produce without the use of soil and soil fertiliser, which not only prevents excess water consumption, but avoids the use of pesticides toxic to many ecosystems. The Bristol-born company LettUs Grow have supported Grow It York by showing them how their crops can have their roots suspended in the air and irrigated with a nutrient-dense mist that is generated using ultrasonic sound waves. As listed by the LettUs Grow website, the use of ultrasonic aeroponics enables its adaptability to more commercial facilities than traditional aeroponics, which requires a nozzle to create water mist. Taken together with the financial support that Grow It York receives as a member of FixOurFood, such adaptability of resources may be the defining feature in enabling the expansion of vertical farming to the wider agricultural industry.

It should come as no surprise that agriculture has a huge influence on the volume of water available for human use. According to international NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund, the world is facing a water crisis, with approximately two billion people affected by water shortages. Traditional agricultural practices consume the vital resource highly inefficiently, and this problem has been exacerbated by the intensification of agriculture in the last century driven by a sharp population increase. Furthermore, a large proportion of the UK’s watercourses have been affected by chemical and nutrient pollution originating from agriculture, to the extent that currently only 24 percent of water bodies in England, and 36 percent in Wales, are deemed to have ‘good ecological status’. Over 70 percent of the UK’s land area is used for farming, thus the emergence of more sustainable agricultural practices that reduce water usage, such as vertical farming, could have a significant environmental impact in the UK alone.

Grow It York is just one example of how researchers at the University of York work within their local community to pioneer solutions to global challenges. So the next time you’re at SPARK, have a look through the windows of the neon pink shipping container. A growing population and declining resources pose questions for the future, and the answers might just be found in an eclectic collection of start-ups.