Vertical farming gets boost with major investment

By Donna Eastlake

- Last updated on GMT

IGS's demonstrator farm in use at COP28 in Dubai last month. During the event, IGS signed a contract with Dubai-based partner ReFarm to build a 900,000sq ft GigaFarm in the UAE, where it will replace 1% of food imports to the country.
IGS's demonstrator farm in use at COP28 in Dubai last month. During the event, IGS signed a contract with Dubai-based partner ReFarm to build a 900,000sq ft GigaFarm in the UAE, where it will replace 1% of food imports to the country.

Related tags vertical farming Food Food security Agriculture GigaFarm AeroFarms Investment Crops

Things are looking up for the vertical farming industry as investors back vertical farm tech provider, Intelligent Growth Solutions

Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS), a leading vertical farm technology provider, has secured £22.5m (€26.3m) in Series C funding to support significant global expansion. The announcement comes after IGS​ confirmed to COP28​ that it would be joining Dubai-based partner ReFarm to build a 900,000 square foot ‘GigaFarm’ in the United Arab Emirates. Once completed, the farm will be capable of growing two billion plants each year, equating to enough fresh produce to replace 1% of the country’s current imports.

What is Series C funding?

Series C funding is initiated when a company is preparing to be acquired, go public on the stock market or undergo significant expansion.

What is vertical farming and what are the benefits?

As you may have guessed, vertical farming is the practice of growing crops vertically, rather than horizontally. This unique approach to agriculture sees crops stacked in vertical layers, within a controlled environment. Amongst the many benefits, it allows for the optimisation of growth as plants are provided with the ideal amount of water, air, light, soil nutrients and warmth. As well as maximising the chance of crop success, this method offers further benefits, including and utilisation of soilless farming techniques, such as hydroponics​, aquaponics and aeroponics.

“At its simplest, vertical farming means you can grow crops on a smaller footprint, and that’s going to be more important in a world where arable land is increasingly under more pressure. We’re seeing more and more global incidents of extreme weather each year, with crops damaged or destroyed by drought, flooding, unseasonal cold snaps or wildfires​,” said IGS CEO, Andrew Lloyd.

“A unique aspect of IGS vertical farms is our patented Total Control Environment Agriculture Technology, which allows farmers to deliver exactly the weather conditions a crop needs at each point in its growth cycle via software-controlled recipes built by world-leading crop scientists. Each element of the growing environment – from the amount and type of light through to the airflow, nutrients, and water – is precisely controlled to deliver a higher guaranteed yield of high-quality produce per square foot compared to traditional farming.”

Further benefits include the opportunity to maximise resources, recycling up to 95% of water and operating on a closed-loop system to ensure no surface run off, through its production process. “Our patented control system uses extra low voltage power, ensuring each kWh of electricity is optimised.” The scope for crop variety is also a huge benefit of vertical farming with over 250 crops currently grown within an IGS vertical farm.

Modular vertical farms can be built up to 12 metres high, while occupying a footprint of just 41m2​. In contrast to traditional horizontal farming methods, vertical farms do not require high-quality arable land to thrive, and so can be built in urban or brownfield environments, allowing produce to be grown closer to consumers. In addition to maximising land use, this helps to minimise the food miles and carbon footprint of the crops grown and reducing food waste.

“Our partners in the UAE, ReFarm, will use IGS’ vertical farming technology as an important part of their waste-to-value ‘GigaFarm’. Working alongside five other technologies, the 200, 12-metre-high IGS Growth Towers will provide 87,000m2​ of growing space as part of a self-contained ecosystem designed to maximise resource efficiency and prevent any waste going to landfill.

“Each year, 50,000 tonnes of food waste will be recycled on-site by black soldier fly larvae, with by-products including organic compost used in traditional agricultural practices, animal feed for replacing unsustainable fish meal and soy oil, and water for use in the vertical farming towers. The technologies on site will also recover up to 90% of ammonia sulphate from wastewater for use in plant fertilisers and produce organic biodegradable polymers designed to gradually release water and nutrients to crops in arid regions.”

Modern farming practices, including vertical farming, are supported by the European Commission​, which states that “urban agriculture is an emerging discipline and a fast-growing trend. It does not compete but help conventional agriculture with the many challenges and crisis the world is facing…it has to become a complementary way to strengthen food systems in a near future.”

What are the negatives of vertical farming?

There are several significant drawbacks to this farming method, primarily what is also considered its greatest strength: its reliance upon technology. The controlled nature of vertical farming means that the technology it relies upon, providing heat, light and irrigation, must work perfectly for the crops to survive. Natural environmental sources, such as rainwater and sunlight, are not available to them.

This heavy reliance upon technology, in turn, leads to an increased vulnerability to rising energy costs and has resulted in struggles for the industry​. It also leads to a heavy reliance upon a highly skilled workforce, with a thorough knowledge of the technology operated, necessary.

Vertical farming also claims one major limitation to crop growth – plant height. Agreeing with this, Lloyd noted, “While for some crops – herbs, and leafy greens, for example – a vertical farm provides the ideal growing environment from seed to harvest, for others – fruiting crops, brassicas, potatoes and even non-edible plants such as trees – a vertical farm serves as the ideal nursery for young plants and seedlings, which are subsequently planted out into a more traditional environment.”

Signs vertical farming could be on the up

The vertical farming sector has struggled in recent years, with Dutch company Glowfarms, UK-based Eider Vertical Farming and US-based Fifth Season ceasing operations. Germany-headquartered Infarm’s Dutch arm declared bankruptcy last year.

But good news stories also exist within the vertical farming space. Most notably, AeroFarms  in the US remerged from voluntary Chapter 11​ last year with the help of existing investors. 

Is vertical farming the future?

Vertical farming has the potential to play a significant role in the future of global food production, but it can’t do it alone. “While we are constantly working to trial new crops and expand the range of varieties that can be grown within a vertical farm, there are many crops for which a more traditional field or greenhouse environment is more practical,” added Lloyd. Operating alongside, rather than in place of, traditional agricultural practices vertical farming is well placed to support a stable food production model for the future.

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