Inside the UK's biggest vertical farm: Could this Essex warehouse be the future of agriculture?

  • Watch Hannah Pettifer's report for ITV News Anglia

Vertical farming has been hailed as the future of agriculture. More sustainable, needing fewer resources such as land and labour, and the capacity to grow crops all year round. ITV News Anglia went to find out more.

In an unlikely corner of an industrial park in Essex, the UK's biggest vertical farm has opened for business.

Replacing hedgerows and rolling fields are sensors and shelves. Around 105,000 strawberry plants are housed in the metre warehouse-style building.

A traditional way of growing the normally summer fruit would take more than ten times the size.

You can grow your own way: This building houses the UK's biggest vertical farm Credit: ITV News Anglia

Smartkas is the firm behind the project. The Dutch agricultural technology firm says its mission is to eradicate world hunger and provide food security solutions - in essence making sure supermarket shelves are full of fresh food.

Mark Kirby, the firm's chief commercial officer, speaking recently of TV pictures showing empty shelves, said: "That just shows you how reliant we are with growing fresh produce and how reliant we are on the weather conditions.

"Here we create our own weather conditions, our own temperature, our own humidity, everything is controlled by us... We have the opportunity as a business and an ecosystem within agriculture and horticulture to collaborate to make sure there is food security. W

"We don't have empty shelves and that collaboration is even more important now as for what we've seen over the last few months."

The company is able to do this by growing the plants hydroponically, in water. The closed conditions means it uses no pesticides, and the warehouse even has its own bee colony for pollination.

Creating a buzz: One of the in-house workers

The firm also claims to cut down on production costs by using renewable energy sources such as solar panels contribute to the warehouse's energy supply which is largely taken up by light, not heat.

Argricultural experts like Clarke Willis say it could transform food production across the world.

"I think quietly we've got what's called the fourth agricultural revolution happening," he said.

"Controlled environment farming, as we call it, not just vertical farming but glasshouses as well, is really the modern way we are developing food production, not just for security of food but also for environmental benefits."

This is the type of company that Harlow council wants to attract to the town.

Councillor Joel Charles said: "It's an incredible story of ingenuity and innovation - and it's sitting here in Harlow - that you can grow strawberries in a warehouse using state-of-the-art technology.

"Harlow wants to inspire that type of business enterprise to come here, base themselves here to grow our local economy and create jobs."

There are a raft of similar projects already under way.

The University of Cambridge is exploring the vertical farming of seafood and is collaborating with Growing Underground - a farm located 33 metres below Clapham High Street.

Researchers have been helping the farmers to optimise crop performance and reduce energy use.

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