Aquaponics and vertical farming
Ever heard of aquaponics? In the future, more of our food will be grown using aquaponics. Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture (farming fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water with added nutrients rather than soil).
The food that I eat and how it can be grown locally and in a sustainable way is important to me. This is true whether I am at home or away travelling. As more people travel and more people move into urban areas to live it creates a strain on the food systems that are currently in place. Aquaponics is one way that food can be grown more locally and in a way that fits with the idea of a circular economy – an approach that aims to minimise waste and pollution by design.
To learn more about how aquaponics and vertical farming could work as a business in an urban environment, I headed on a damp December evening to a warehouse in Becton, East London to take a tour of GrowUp Urban Farms Unit 84. Unit 84 is the Uk’s first aquaponic, vertical urban farm. According to the website, the warehouse comprises 6000 square feet of growing space that produce 20,000 kg of salad and herbs and 4000 kg of fish each year.
The tour was undertaken by Tom Webster who is the COO and co-founder, and I would like to express my gratitude to Tom for the tour and for answering the many questions the group asked as we walked through the various rooms in the warehouse and at the question and answer session that followed.
So how does an aquaponic, vertical urban farm work?
In one room there are the fish. Aquaponics uses the nutrients that are contained in excreted fish poo to grow the plants. Unit 84 uses Tilapia because these fish have an efficient protein conversion rate.
In the next room is the controlled environment farming.
So what does Unit 84 grow on and what irrigation do they use? Unit 84 uses recycled carpeting to grow on. Irrigation is kept only to the root zone to help avoid bacterial and leaf burn issues. The water is super aerated as this benefits the plant growth.
What is the lighting and how does this work? Unit 84 uses LED lights. The lights are not there to replicate the sun they only use the amount of light that the plants need to grow. Different wave lengths are used depending on whether you are looking to grow leafy, dense crops (higher intensity) or the more elongated crops such as microgreens (lower intensity).
How is the controlled environment set up? Everything in the farm is pre-programmed through a computer. As the plants transpire, you need there is a need to keep the air moving over the crops and Unit 84 uses a system that optimises the cooling system. The farm uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and unique fish eye cameras to monitor leaf density, growth rate and levels of photosynthesis in the leaves to ensure that any signs of stress are caught early.
And what about pests? If a controlled environment is perfect for plants, then it is also potentially ideal for pests too. The yellow strips you can see hanging in the photos above act as a monitoring device alerting the growers to the type of pest present – the pests stick to the yellow sheets! When there is a pest issue Unit 84 introduce natural predators to manage those pests, especially the aphids. In a controlled environment, it may require a combination of predators to manage the pests.
How sustainable is the farm? Unit 84 looks at every part of the supply chain and focuses on using what is readily available and sustainable. The farm uses the most energy efficient electricity (from Ecotricity), recycled carpet, untreated seeds (which they process in-house), recyclable packing and delivers the product using electric vehicles. The product is delivered fresh to the customer in a maximum of 6-12 hours from picking. The business model they are using is designed to be climate and economically resilient.
I love what GrowUp Urban Farms is doing and am impressed with the commitment to a sustainable approach that stretches right along the supply chain.
If you want to buy produce, then they are part of the innovative Farmdrop London scheme.
I have been following the journey the business has been on since I visited the GrowUp Box in 2014. GrowUp Box is located on top of a car park at RoofEast in Stratford, London. This upcycled shipping container is a demonstration model of how aquaponics and vertical farming can work in an urban setting.
Interested in visiting GrowUp farms: GrowUp Farms run a tour of Unit 84 each month which costs £25. Details of the event can be found here. If you are interested in visiting the GrowUp Box, then check back here for when the open days start again in 2017. Both farms are located near to public transport options via the London Overground or London Underground lines or via the Docklands Light Railway for Becton.
If you have a food project that you would like me to cover on TrishTravelFood, then please get in contact and let me know.