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Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security


Q. Can you start by giving us your City Farm Systems elevator pitch? What do you do and why do you do it?

Our protected IP enables us to install the most sustainable, environmentally friendly and economically viable urban farms - growing at the point of need, on a just in time basis and avoiding the costs of distribution. Our CloudGro® systems offer CloudGrown® produce, grown to order, at the point of need with full provenance from Seed to Sale™.

Q. In order to make a rooftop farm work, you need cheap buildings, insurance and the go ahead from health and safety. Did I miss anything? Were you able to get all these variables in place?

You raise an interesting point but the reality is no building in a busy city is cheap for any length of time, which is why we decided not to go down the route of installing urban farms inside a building. Our CloudGro® systems have been engineered to allow us to retrofit a system in hard to access spaces such as the roof of an existing retail warehouse or hotel building.

We quickly realised the best way to make a profit was to cut the cost of distribution, which means distributing the growing to the point of need. All heavily occupied buildings need feeding and pay to dump heat and CO2 at roof level. Our patents cover placing a lightweight, largely automated greenhouse on a modern steel framed roof.

The increasing number of wild weather events has reinforced the need to grow delicate crops under cover. Commercial greenhouse growers will often run gas boilers all summer simply to create the CO2 their crops need - even if it means dumping the heat.

Some have tried to bring the rural greenhouse business model to expensive city buildings in the vain hope that saving a few motorway miles will cover the rent, rates and massive energy bills. Distribution businesses talk of the final mile being the most expensive – in the case of fresh produce, this is caused by disproportionately large amounts of single use transit only packaging and city traffic delays.

My lightbulb moment came when I found myself stuck behind a supermarket lorry for several minutes, only yards from the store. Once inside I found the shelves bare.

Lorries are some of the most expensive vehicles on the road and this one was achieving nothing while the fresh produce it was carrying lost shelf life and the store was losing sales. Coming from a resource efficiency background this made no sense at all. The grower was paying to grow, pack and deliver the most delicate and perishable crops to a store or hotel where they were already paying to dump low level heat waste and CO2 and would now have to find a responsible way to dispose of the transit only packaging.

Recognising that insurance and Health & Safety would not permit regular workforce access to the roof, we developed our automation systems to avoid this. Indoor space in a busy city costs 30-50,000 times as much as agricultural land. A supermarket expects to sell 3 times each week what a greenhouse can grow each year in the same area. One square metre of warehouse roof solar PV in the UK generates the equivalent of 9 litres of diesel whilst each square metre of a commercial greenhouse should be growing about £600 of produce at retail prices.

Q. I would like to talk a bit more about the technology you use. What goes into creating a 'self-sustaining growing system'? Would I be right in thinking that much of the technology used is applied to generate data to ensure the crops are growing?

Automating a rooftop greenhouse is essential to monitor growing crops. Field based agriculture has started to use GPS and drones. GPS doesn’t work for undercover farming and we need that space for crops rather than drones. We chose to move trays of growing crops around the volume and to use RFID tags to keep track of them. This allows us to use large amounts of simple mechanical elements to move the crops and bring them to our transfer corridors where we use a smaller amount of high technology to monitor and deliver nutrient rich water. Multi-spectral cameras can recognise nutrient deficiency, pests and diseases before the human eye can.

Collecting data is essential to making all this work. Growing at the point of need allows a change of business model. Data is key to unlocking the full potential. Where others control their growing environment, our approach offers much more. Some promote the concept of traceability from ‘Farm to Fork’. We believe this is vague with little, if any, information about what happens on the farm and no control over what happens once the produce is sold – with much still to be done before it reaches a plate.

With our approach to data we collect and can offer CloudGrown® produce with full provenance from Seed to Sale™. As we need to work with the building occupier we can analyse their current sales data and contrast it with their ordering figures to create future ‘grow to order’ crop plans.

More recent plans regarding our approach to data focus on what we can offer for research. Our movement of crop trays and individual watering allows a very precise data path along the growing cycle. With some adjustment we can automate many laborious research tasks.

Q. Can you talk to me about the ‘low impact production’ process you follow? What does that entail exactly and what are the benefits?

Our ability to change the business model is what sets us apart. Growing at the point of need and having the ability to match harvesting to short term demand changes avoids waste. Others follow what we call the ‘Heathrow model’ – growing at absolute maximum capacity and then hoping to sell.

The lightbulb moment was all about the desire to avoid waste and unnecessary effort. Why pay to grow, pack and deliver what we know will be wasted? Shortening supply chains from a typical 3 days to a few minutes offers so much more.

Q. You worked with a lot of different academics and specialists to develop your strategy. From what I understand you consulted with robotic engineers, architects and economists? What were the key points they highlighted and how much of that advice did you incorporate into your strategy?

Early on, we met with a few academics who highlighted points which became key drivers for our research and development. A professor of economics advised us to, ‘reduce the Minimum Efficient Scale’. For a long time, agriculture has depended on monoculture and the ability to fill a whole lorry to be able to make a profit. Different crops have been grown at scale on each farm or greenhouse. For horticulture, this created the demand for seasonal labour and contributed to the issues surrounding migrant labour. Retailers on the other hand want to sell fresh produce daily.

Another meeting was with one of the technical authors of the ISO paper on measuring greenhouse gases. With his background in agriculture he suggested we should ‘see green whenever we look down’. A lot of our development has followed this approach and we have used robotics, mechatronics engineers and data specialists to unlock its full potential.

Q. I would like to wrap up by talking about urban agriculture in relation to climate change adaptation. In order to ensure food security in the face of climate change and expanding cities, a model such as this will need to be ‘industrialized’. If you were to design a factory or a city with urban agriculture in mind, where would you start and where is this being done?

We are confident that financiers will not allow the ‘food at any cost’ approach to continue for long.

One key point often neglected is the significance of the changes in seasonal demand. In the UK, demand for salad crops halve in winter. If others cannot make a profit at the time of peak demand, how will they cope with competition? The figures will never stack up for them. Anyone expecting to grow on several levels inside a warehouse type building will depend on horrifically large amounts of energy. Frankly, they may as well light them with piles of burning banknotes.

Current horticulture often relies on back breaking work in appalling conditions. When it comes to the industrialisation of urban farming, the Japanese would happily use robotics from start to finish. We took the view that, whilst this is entirely possible, it is only necessary when following a traditional business model.

Reducing the Minimum Efficiency Scale offers opportunities to create engaging tasks for a broad spectrum of age and ability. There is no need to work at scales that require sophisticated high-speed seed sowing or packaging machinery when you only need to produce a few dozen fresh crop trays each day.

Not all school leavers are suited to academic life. Having said that even those with degrees can end up with roles no more fulfilling than flipping burgers or stacking supermarket shelves. By distributing the growing, a CloudGro® system offers the chance to work in ideal conditions with much less stress. Rather than unload a lorry, stack the shelf and dispose of the packaging, local workers can be a key part of the growing process, sowing seeds and harvesting fresh produce at floor level - a job they can take pride in.

There are a few who have applied the market garden or allotment style growing approach and brought it to small unused city spaces but you can’t feed a city using this approach. With monitoring, horticultural expertise and management delivered via the cloud and much of the crop care being automated, a CloudGro® system can achieve much more.

New urban communities are being designed without roads and will depend on the approach we offer. Local authorities are coming back to community housing. Our systems would make perfect sense to broaden local employment opportunities whilst growing food for the community. The general consensus is we can do better than simply picking low hanging fruit. At the moment, commercial sustainability is about little more than crawling around picking up windfall apples. When retailers are ready to break down their silo thinking, we will collaborate to pick the top-quality fruit hanging above our heads.


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