Horticulture can make a valuable contribution, particularly if it is implemented in controlled environments such as greenhouses or polytunnels. And this contribution can be significantly enhanced if internet of things (IoT) technology is used to improve the performance, efficiency, and crop yield of horticultural production.
Deeply embedded in the urban agritech sector for many years, Mark’s perspective has been developed with global exposure and experience, alongside a commitment to deliver a greater profile for the UK in this market. He talks to us about the UK’s part to play in the expansion of agritech in a local and global context, and considers more broadly the opportunities being brought to bear for this emerging agricultural approach. We discuss competition versus collaboration, as well as the co-existence of the two, to increase the impact and portion of the agricultural ecosystem in which urban agritech can thrive.
Q) Can you share some background to the founding vision for UKUAT?
I previously worked with an international organisation in the vertical farming space and it led me to conclude that we needed organisations which reflect overarching principles but are more ‘on the ground’ in terms of how they operate.
UKUAT started three and half years ago with five people on the phone informally keeping each other updated about what we were doing, sharing events and talking about how we could collaborate.
It grew organically and became an informal organisation with regular meetings. This year we became a formalised non-profit organisation pursuing our goals more seriously. UKUAT is based around familiar principles of: engaging with policy; with education; research and expertise; and collaboration across the urban agritech community. We have approximately 60 members: half are organisational members, which comprises commercial organisations like IGS, universities and research groups, and the other half are individuals such as academics, policy developers and those really interested in this space.
Q) You have been involved in the urban agritech sector for several years. How has sector interest grown, as well as broader consumer interest?
There is growing interest in the sector, in fact it is growing pretty quickly now. It was slower in the UK initially but there are a bunch of drivers moving it forward now: Brexit, climate change and food resilience more generally, so it has begun to accelerate rapidly.
From a consumer perspective, the topic which seems to be driving everything is localism and even hyper-localism. People are interested in this and like the ideas of transparency and sustainability. Knowing where your food comes from is driving interest in agritech solutions, the key ones being vertical farming (based more on volume) and rooftop greenhouse approach (based more on how and where produce is being delivered).
Q) What are the challenges facing the urban agritech sector? And what are the opportunities?
Everything depends on context, geographical placement and above all else what you are doing it for – be that commercial, educational, or social value. This drives how your whole business or organisation will operate. There are numerous challenges such as high CAPEX and OPEX as well as policy questions around planning and subsidies and how those interact with your company or project. However, the industry is aware of these challenges and is really starting to address them. As a result, we believe there will be an explosion of opportunity to really expand this industry out quickly.
“We believe there will be an explosion of opportunity to really expand this industry out pretty quickly.”
Q) Which will further the development of the CEA and urban agritech industries in your opinion – greater collaboration or greater competition?
It is a bit of both. I prefer to refer to it like a ‘pie’. When greater competition is introduced, there is a struggle to gain a greater proportion of the pie. The role of the UKUAT, and indeed greater collaboration, is to make that pie bigger overall.
Cooperation happens in a pre-competitive space in areas such as research, education and policy, allowing everybody to move forward together. This is necessary, otherwise you end up with people reinventing the wheel and addressing same challenges over and over again. Collaboration allows people to move forward together in many areas, but still compete on price, product, branding, IP – whatever it may be – but they just do that with a raised base line from which to operate.
“Collaboration allows people to move forward together in many areas, but still compete … with a raised base line with which to operate.”
Q) Should there be more discussion and co-working between urban and town planners and agritech innovators?
Yes, this is a critical area and one we are working hard on. We want to end up with a typology of use classes which will work for urban and town planners. They want to know easily what requirements and resources will be needed, what solutions might look like and then where to put them. Their job is ultimately to make a reasonable or reasoned decision about whether to approve or propose fitting something in, and there’s work we’re doing to support this.
That sort of typology could be applicable in a variety of scenarios including a roof top farm, a new build or a retrofit, façade or whatever it might be; what power requirements it might have for example. Having an awareness of all these elements would then allow planners to make informed decisions about how a scheme would work. This would then end up (ideally) with a smarter system where a company will go and talk to a town planner or these types of solutions would be considered earlier if a city council has a site on which it wants to build. Developers would then be able to consider these too and include urban agritech more comfortably.
Q) What is the role of the retailer in the wider adoption of urban agritech approaches?
With the retailer, it is a question of scale. There are two ways of doing urban agriculture. There is small scale, hyper local growing micro greens for a local restaurant or shop, and then at the other end of the scale you have really big vertical farms in the sort of peri-urban space which you would site next to a distribution centre so it can go straight into the logistical distribution for a large retailer. Either way, the goal of any produce grower is to deliver their product to a consumer.
Q) In the UK how do we compare to other countries in our approach to adopting and developing urban agri approaches? Are there other countries or regions we can be learning from?
There are two ends of a scale here. At one end you might see Singapore or China where the drive is coming from central government which dedicates time and money to move it forward. However, the weakness of that is approach that it tends to be a bit heavy on mandating exactly what happens and can become a bit inflexible.
On the other end of the scale, you have the US free market approach which is flexible and has a profusion of people looking into the feasibility of this kind of approach. However, the risk here is that if these innovative growing schemes struggle to receive wider support and are only operational in the free market, it becomes very challenging to compete with other, more established, forms of food production.
I think the challenge in the UK is to figure out a ‘best of both worlds’ approach. If we are going to put public money into this sort of technology, we need to ensure that it allows for flexibility and innovation which the free market is the ideal background for. However, we simultaneously need to support it adequately so innovative forms of agritech can get a foothold before we can start looking at how we use this as part of a wider food system to achieve certain societal goals.
“We need to support it adequately… and start looking at how we use this as part of a wider food system to achieve certain societal goals.”
It is trying to find the sweet spot.
Q) You are also part of the FarmTech Society, which is based in Belgium. How is it working with organisations and governments to move forward greater agricultural and food production methods and approaches?
The FarmTech Society (FTS) is based in Brussels nominally but we have people in Europe and US (www.farmtechsociety.org). It works on three core principles of education, standardisation and policy. It takes a strategic view and looks at the really big questions for agritech. For example, on the standardisation point it has developed a partnership with Global GAP to look at sustainability standards across the industry. In education, it is working on a project with Erasmus Plus to develop an accreditation scheme.
These wider overarching principles are developed at an international level and organisations such as UKUAT look to implement or adapt them at local level. At FTS, we want to create a network of networks. The organisation’s aim is to mirror place-based context in each individual region and feed that up into a wider process through which we can generate discussion and drive policy or industry change to feed back down to the regional level.
“With the FarmTech Society we want to create a network of networks.”
Q) What role does education have to play in furthering the wider adoption of urban agritech?
You could hardly think of a more important thing. We want to be involved at a primary and secondary level and want to be part of STEM adoption. We want to share the wonder of this technology and show kids how food is and can be produced. Green Bronx Machine in New York, a school garden programme which uses urban agriculture to connect pupils with where their food comes from, is an example of where this has been done really well. Beyond schools there are two specific areas of educational development: vocational training or the higher education route. Both are hugely important and as an industry set to expand over time, we will need a workforce of people with demonstrable and certified skills that allow them to operate those technologies. Within higher education the core skills going forward will need to focus on technical, management and strategic level, research or developing new technologies.
It is also vitally important to educate consumers, policy makers and those in the wider world. This is a very important communications exercise as you ultimately want people to know that these emerging technologies are safe and they can trust them. Beyond that, we want consumers to see the benefits that a better food experience can bring.
For more info go to: https://www.ukuat.org/
Chair of UKUAT
Mark has been involved in the Vertical Farming industry for around eight years. He is the Founder & Chairman of UK Urban AgriTech (UKUAT), bringing together the leading companies, universities and individuals in the UK urban agritech industry. He is also Communications Manager at The FarmTech Society, the Co-Founder of The Soya Project, and does freelance consulting work across the industry.
In his work he has dealt extensively with industry standardisation, sustainability certification, vertical farming education and vertical farming policy. His expertise is in building networks and associations that maximise value for their members, and for the industry as a whole.
Mark’s primary interest is in taking a systemic overview of how vertical farming can be integrated with other systems, to deliver on its promises of regenerative food production and resilient societies.