Q. What stories that relate to sustainability have caught your attention so far this year?
The first one that comes to mind is Cape Town’s recent water crisis. In simple terms the city’s reservoirs almost ran dry because of severe droughts and increased consumption by their growing population. At the beginning of the year the government warned that unless consumption was dramatically reduced by mid-April then water to people homes would have to be turned off and rationed. This date was ominously named ‘Day Zero’. To avoid this fate people were urged not use more than 50 litres per day. Activities such as car washing and filling up swimming pools were made illegal, and we saw all kinds of saving tips being shared on social media. The seasonal rains means that ‘Day Zero’ has been avoided, but it looks like the water crisis will be an annual challenge for the city as rainfall levels continue to decline. For many the consequences of environmental change feel like the problems of tomorrow, but for Cape Town they’re here today, and so the race to develop new products and services that address them has begun. And this isn’t the only major city having to face up to these issues around the world.
Q. Looking at the UK’s food system where do you feel we could become more resilient?
One area where we certainly aren’t self-sufficient in is our reliance on imported salad greens and tomatoes between the months of September and March. This represents a large section of the year and much of the produce that appears on our shelves during that time is flown in from the South of Spain.
If you’ve never looked at the Almeria region in Spain where the majority of this produce is grown, then it’s certainly worth doing. The region is covered with a staggering amount of greenhouses, so much so that they’re visible from space and make the region looked snow covered. This is not a sustainable model. The effects of eutrophication, implication on human working conditions and environmental effect of transporting this produce thousands of miles around Europe is vast. The consequence of that amount of glass is a drop in the ground temperature of two degrees since the 1980s, as light that would otherwise warm the ground is reflected away.
Q. How do you see food systems changing in the future?
I think the trend of moving production closer to demand will continue to grow. We’ve seen early attempts such as farming in shipping containers and on roof tops in cities show that it’s feasible. The best examples include Gotham Greens who partnered with Whole Foods to install greenhouses on store rooves, supplying the aisles below with fresh salad greens all year round. Although it’s an interesting idea the demand of the store is often way in excess of what can be produced on the limited footprint of the roof. As an exercise in building consumer interest and confidence in produce grown this way I feel it’s very successful though.
The strategy which I believe will ultimately be more successful will be in building larger farms which employ vertical farming techniques next to large distribution centres. These farms, with much of their operations automated, will have the potential to fulfil the needs of an entire region, year round and can take advantage of existing supply and distribution chains.
There are a lot of companies already working to such a strategy, with attention and investment in them growing year-on-year. Recently Soft Bank led a $200 million investment round in Vertical Farming company Plenty which gives you a sense of scale to the interest. Along with others in the industry, we are beginning to showcase how vertically grown produce (in our case utilising Aeroponics) can compete with traditional forms of agriculture. Over the past year we have proven significant yield increases from our optimised aeroponic systems compared to the industry standard. Combined with the system level benefits for our farmers this is a very promising step for the industry to unlock vertical farming for the masses.
LettUs Grow® is a Bristol (UK) based start-up that design irrigation and control technology for vertical farms to help feed the next generation. Our mission is to reduce the waste and carbon footprint of fresh produce, enabling anyone to grow delicious food near to its point of consumption.
Co-Founder + Engineering Lead
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