Home » University of Essex Unveils UK’s First Commercial Vertical Farm to Combat Climate Change

University of Essex Unveils UK’s First Commercial Vertical Farm to Combat Climate Change

by Victor Adeyemi
  • University of Essex unveils £3M plant lab to develop climate-resilient crops. 
  • It features commercial vertical farming and controlled environments to adapt plants.
  • Ultimately, the aim is to enhance future food security amid climate change.

In a race against time to prepare agriculture for climate change, the University of Essex has taken a major step by opening a unique £3 million plant lab.

This advanced facility, called the Smart Technology Experimental Plant Suite (STEPS), will allow researchers to adapt plants to thrive in hotter and drier conditions.

The First in the UK 

At the core of this lab is a commercial-scale vertical farm – the first of its kind in the UK. Here, crops can be grown indoors layer by layer to mimick natural environments from anywhere in the world. 

The lab also has special rooms that copy a warming world. As a result, researchers can control carbon dioxide levels and temperature as needed.

Moreover, the facility has computer scanning technology to monitor plant growth and detect precise changes in photosynthesis. Supporting this research will be artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics as they will help to predict how agriculture and nature are changing.

Leading this pioneering project is world-renowned biologist Professor Tracy Lawson. She has decades of experience improving plant productivity, photosynthesis, and crop water use. 

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In her remarks, she said, “This remarkable facility puts plant research at Essex in a unique position to grow and select plants for tomorrow’s atmosphere today,” she said. 

The Purpose: To Meet Future Food Needs

With the human population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, a greater increase in farm productivity, sustainability, and resilience is crucial to meet the growing food demand. 

The STEPS facility aims to find ways to optimize plant performance while working towards net-zero emissions.

“This lab will put us at the forefront of research into how we can help plants change and adapt to climate change – securing everyone’s future,” Prof Lawson said.

“This state-of-the-art facility will help the world cope with a growing population by ensuring future food security by developing climate-resilient plants.” She added. 

Strategic Collaboration

In a major collaboration, the project includes long-time industry partner Innovation Agritech Group (IAG), a British company. IAG installed the commercial-scale vertical farm unit, and deployed a full-scale GrowFrame360 – a unique feature in UK universities. 

Students will play a key role in this effort. They will work alongside world-renowned researchers to develop and conduct experiments. As a result, it will provide them with a unique learning and training opportunity.

Kate Brunswick, Business Development Director at IAG, expressed her enthusiasm, stating, “We are honoured to join forces with the University of Essex and the Wolfson Foundation in launching the first commercial vertical farm within a UK university.”

Furthermore, the STEPS facility will build connections within the local community and develop relationships with agriculture, horticulture, and technology businesses

Funding Support

The Wolfson Foundation, recognizing the importance of this project, has provided £1 million in funding. 

Paul Ramsbottom, the Foundation’s Chief Executive, emphasized, “We are in a race against time to prepare agriculture for climate change – not just in the UK, but globally. We are delighted to be funding the technology platforms that will help them achieve this.”

Future Impact  

Speaking about the impact, Brunswick added that their innovative GrowFrame360 technology would empower scientists and students alike to tackle the complexities of a changing climate on future crop production. 

She said they eagerly anticipated the transformative impact this facility would have on agricultural resilience and productivity.

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