Vertical farming, in which plants are grown indoors in controlled environments, is gaining momentum. According to Grand View Research, the global vertical farming market is expected to reach $22 billion by 2030.
Its growing popularity is not surprising, considering that by 2050 the world population is expected to reach 9 billion, which will put considerable pressure on limited natural resources to ensure food security. Climate change is expected to make the situation worse.
Yet as vertical farming operations grow, certification body Control Union UK and the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) have observed that the sector lacks a certification system.
The partners have jointly developed a system: the Sustainable Indoor Farming (SIF) standard.
The SIF standard will be owned by the AVF in the future, with Control Union acting as the sole certification body.
Fill a gap
Areas of environmentally conscious agriculture that will benefit from certification standards include organic farming, outdoor farming and regenerative farming. These, according to Control Union, offer “legitimacy” and “rigorous control”.
Yet until now, there hasn’t been a bespoke sustainability certification program for vertical farming, a Control Union spokesperson explained.
“We noted that organic certifications are not accessible in some regions (such as Europe) and that while some systems existed on quality aspects, there was nothing in place for environmental sustainability.
“Our partner AVF confirmed to us that there was a desire and a need for such a program, and so we developed the SIF together.”
By “filling a gap” for certification services, the system includes a set of sustainability criteria tailored to vertical farming, with “consistent data collection” and “continuous improvement” as core values.
The standard was developed through “several rounds” of consultation with industry, technology providers and academic research.
Measurements covered by the SIF standard include energy consumption, renewable energy consumption, water, nutrients, substrates, plant protection measures, space efficiency, seeds, waste and food miles.
Certifications are granted based on the results of a two-part audit process, beginning with a desk review of the production facility followed by an in-person on-site visit.
The process takes about six months, from initial application to certification. Once granted, certificates are valid for four years, subject to successful completion of an annual surveillance audit, which is a scaled down version of the original process.
So what are the big challenges facing vertical agricultural businesses to operate “sustainably”? According to Control Union, the “big problem” is energy consumption.
“Vertical farming is very energy intensive. That’s why we paid special attention to this metric in the program – even adding a “sustainable energy consumption” metric to ensure adequate coverage. »
Under what circumstances can an operator not obtain certification? If, during the audit, the auditor finds that the farm fails to meet multiple criteria of the same metric, it would result in a failed assessment, the Control Union spokesperson told FoodNavigator. .
“Similarly, if multiple criteria are not met within the program parameters, it would result in non-compliance with the SIF standard.”
In this first version of the program, the emphasis is on data collection and analysis, as well as demonstrable, measurable and achievable continuous improvement, explained the spokesperson. “These are the guiding principles that are embedded in each of the parameters of the SIF standard.
“An example of non-compliance would be if a farm is found to be using mineral wool as a substrate, and there is no demonstrable intention or work plan to move it to a substrate. lower impact. It would be [then] be a nonconformity.
“Such non-compliance would not in itself represent a failure to achieve certification, but several such non-compliances would prevent an operation from achieving certification.”
Logo for B2B and B2C markets
According to Control Union, certified companies will benefit from an “independent and robust label” indicating that they guarantee the implementation of sustainable practices, as well as a plan for continuous improvement.
According to the organization, this should lead to better market access and enable consumers to understand the environmental benefits of vertically farmed products.
“The logo can be affixed to product packaging for certified farms. Each certified entity will also receive a certificate with a unique number, so that certification can also be demonstrated in B2B settings,” the spokesperson told this publication.
There is “strong” industry interest in certification, the spokesperson continued, with “most” of the discussions currently taking place in the Middle East and Asia.
“It’s hard to say what the pass rates will be at this stage. We’ve set out to create a standard that represents best practice in field sustainability, this will be reflected in the pass rates.”