Is urban farming a sustainable way to feed city dwellers?

GrowUp

GrowUp intends to go national and serve multiple retail customers

Urban farming has long been regarded as a specialist area, with players often seen as enthusiastic but not serious suppliers of fresh produce. But a new start-up aims to show the potential for such schemes to compete with traditional growers. Produce Business UK finds out more

Beckton, in East London, is currently better known for its gas works than as the birthplace of a fresh produce revolution. Yet come this September that may all change when the UK’s first commercial urban farm opens in the area. 

GrowUp Urban Farms is transforming a 6,000ft2 warehouse into an annual supplier of some 20,000kg (20 tonnes) of salads and herbs, and 4,000kg of fish thanks to hydroponics and aquaculture technology.

Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants in a nutrient solution without soil. So the wastewater from the fish tanks will be pumped through hydroponic growing beds where the salad plants will absorb waste nutrients from the water, and clean the water for the fish as the system continually recirculates.

It is, to date, one of the more sustainable and ethical forms of food production that has been discovered. The advantage of such technology is that it can be set up in a city environment. However, the issue in the UK has always been about scale and routes to market for produce grown through such systems.

Routes to market

GrowUp has a handle on both; seeing the Beckton site as the first of a number of sites across the country, all feeding into a chain of supply for local customers that range from restaurants to both physical and online independent retailers and farm shops.

Kate Hofman, CEO and co-founder of GrowUp Urban Farms, says the business represents a more sustainable future for feeding people in cities. “This farm will be a flagship for innovative urban farming, putting food and feeding people at the heart of the development of London as a smarter and more sustainable city,” she explains. 

“But I think there is a lot of potential for other cities in the UK to move towards being smarter urban areas with a focus on local business and production.

“George Osborne's ‘Northern Powerhouse’ concept barely mentions sustainability, but we're certainly going to be looking outside of London for future farms.” 

GrowUp secured over £1.1 million to support the development of this project, with 65% of the investment provided by Ignite Social Enterprise, backed by the utility company Centrica.

Where GrowUp hopes to prove its model works is in the sale of the produce. Already it has been supplying local restaurants with salads and herbs grown in upcycled shipping containers located in Roof East, Stratford.

Having already established its pricing structure, and supply route, it’s now a matter of scaling up the operation, and Hofman is confident this enterprise could work with a national retailer too, utilising the space left behind in big box supermarkets as more non-grocery product is shifted online. 

“This is something we'd like to explore in the future, especially given the changing use of space that food retailers are seeing as buying habits shift,” she explains.

“I think there is a lot of potential for our model to work in developing countries too, specifically where water scarcity or soil erosion is a problem for agriculture.”

Job provider

Initially, the farm will provide eight jobs, with three positions created specifically for local young people with a history of poor educational attainment and with all employees receiving at least the London Living Wage. 

Hofman adds that attracting a workforce is one of the benefits of urban farming. For areas of labour-intensive conventional farming, there is always a problem of finding enough bodies to pick produce. 

With the constant development of urban farming technology, the day may well come when strawberries are grown in a city centre tower block rather than in Kent greenhouses.

The world of environmentally forward thinking technology is forging partnerships and links that could see such visions become reality within a few years, and GrowUp has benefited from support from the Climate-KIC UK centre.

The centre acts as a hub where ideas can be transformed into economically viable projects and products. GrowUp became involved with the centre in 2013 and within two years it is launching the Beckton business. 

Professor Richard Templer, director of Climate-KIC UK, says GrowUp Urban Farms has been one of the brightest stars in the Climate-KIC Accelerator programme, which now supports more than 120 ‘clean tech’ start-ups each year. 

“GrowUp entered the first stage of the Accelerator Programme in September 2013 and has continued to win awards for its potential to pioneer a ground breaking new model for sustainable, commercial-scale urban agriculture,” he explains.

“London has great potential to become a clean tech hub and I’m delighted to see GrowUp leading the charge.”

The technology, the space, and the potential for more sites is there for GrowUp but so is a changing retail landscape. The rise in online shopping has opened the door for online farm shops such as Bonativo to set up.

These sites attract an environmentally-conscious customer looking for local food producers, and one that is open to the idea of salad being grown in a warehouse. There’s also a rise in c-store franchises, such as Budgens in Crouch End, which stock local produce as a unique selling point.

Hofman acknowledges that the public’s changing attitude towards how food is grown and being more concerned with nutritional and environmental value than location is a boost to their business. 

“I think people are wanting food that has traceability, and food that they know has not been grown with pesticides or fertilisers,” she says.

“We already supply restaurants, and we’re looking at other channels, but it’s also important that everyone gets to access this produce and so we’ve got a flexible business model whereby 25% of it will be sold in local markets.”

With traditional farming facing issues such as changing weather patterns, the rising cost of inputs and labour, and ageing farmers to name just a few, GrowUp wants to show the fresh produce industry there is an alternative way to feed the population.

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