Fera Science

This interview details Fera Science, an indoor farming company based in the UK. The interview is with Damian Malins, Venturing Projects Director at Fera Science

Source: Fera Science

What is the origin story of Fera Science?

Fera Science Limited, often referred to simply as Fera, was originally established as the Food and Environment Research Agency. Its roots can be traced back to 1916 with the founding of the Institute for Plant Pathology in Harpenden.

It has undergone various transformations and amalgamations over the years, including the notable incorporation of the Central Science Laboratory in 2009, and subsequent transformation into Fera Science Ltd in 2015 – a commercial business and joint venture with DEFRA. Based in York, UK, Fera focuses on a wide array of scientific services and research, encompassing areas such as plant and bee health, agri-food quality, and sustainable agriculture.

Source: Fera Science

What are some of the biggest challenges facing Fera in the future?

As with many organisations in the field, Fera faces several significant challenges in the future, including:

  • Adapting to the impacts of climate change on agriculture and food security, working with our partners and customers to find ways to be more efficient and reduce our impact.
  • Staying ahead in technological advancements, especially in the realms of controlled environment farming and insect farming.
  • Ensuring sustainability in operations and research, minimising environmental impacts.
  • Navigating the regulatory landscape, which can be complex in the fields of food, agriculture, and environmental science.

Fera is well placed to address these challenges and we work closely with a wide range of land owners, food producers, and government policy teams, as well as with food manufacturers in exploring novel and sustainable solutions to these challenges.

Source: Fera Science

What is unique about Fera Science compared to competitors?

Fera distinguishes itself through strong government connections, having been part of the UK Government until 2015, as well as working with Government agencies and departments around the world.

Our comprehensive approach includes a range of services from laboratory testing to risk assessments and consultancy. Fera is committed to innovation in sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship, with expertise in both traditional and emerging agricultural methods, such as controlled environment farming and insect farming. It operates a variety of laboratory, glasshouse, and field facilities, including the UK’s only dedicated insect farming CE research unit.

Source: Fera Science

Fera Science stands out from competitors due to its:

  • Strong government ties, having been part of the UK Government until the formation of Fera Science Ltd in 2015 and a focus on growing our work with industry alongside a continuing support to the UK Government.
  • Comprehensive approach, which encompasses a broad range of services from laboratory testing to risk assessments and expert consultancy.
  • Dedication to innovation, particularly in sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship.
  • Expertise in both traditional agricultural methods and emerging fields like controlled environment farming and insect farming.
  • Operations of a comprehensive range of laboratory and glasshouse and field facilities, including the UK’s only dedicated insect farming CE research unit.

Source: Fera Science

What are your thoughts on the current state of the indoor farming industry, and any predictions for future market trends?

The indoor farming industry is experiencing rapid growth and technological innovation. Our predictions for future market trends include continued technological advancements, expansion into new crops and produce, integration of artificial intelligence and robotics for increased productivity, and growing interest in indoor farming as a solution to food security and urbanisation. The value of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) lies in these areas, particularly in countries where a premium can be afforded for food production.

The current state of the indoor farming industry is one of rapid growth and technological innovation. Vertical farming, hydroponics, and other controlled environment agriculture (CEA) techniques are being increasingly adopted. Our predictions for future market trends include:

  • Continued technological advancements, leading to greater efficiency and lower costs.
  • Expansion into new crops and produce, beyond leafy greens and herbs, incorporating the range of sectors from novel feed (insects, algae, etc), crop treatments (seaweed etc..), and horticulture (tree seedlings).
  • Integration of artificial intelligence and robotics for enhanced productivity.
  • Increased interest in indoor farming as a solution to food security and urbanisation – moving food production closer to the retailers and consumers.

Source: Fera Science

We also note that there have been numerous challenges recently linked to fundraising, profitability, and market differentiation. The substantial initial capital investment required for setting up CEA facilities, along with the complexities of the sophisticated technology involved, presents a formidable entry barrier, and heavy draw on continued operational overheads. This challenge is compounded by the cautious approach of investors, who are often hesitant due to the emerging nature of the industry and uncertainties surrounding its long-term profitability. Additionally, CEA businesses are grappling with the high costs associated with current energy consumption and technology maintenance, which has obvious implications for their profitability. The sector also faces intense competition, adding to the difficulty of establishing a unique market position. All combined creates significant challenges for the industry.

Looking to the future, Fera sees significant changes and advancements in CEA farming. We anticipate that ongoing technological developments will lower both the initial setup and operational costs, making these systems more accessible and economically viable. The transition towards renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, will play a crucial role in reducing energy costs and the environmental footprint of CEA operations. As the industry matures and more success stories emerge, we expect investor confidence to grow, leading to increased funding opportunities.

Furthermore, with a global emphasis on sustainability and food security, it is likely that governmental and public sector support for CEA projects will expand, offering additional incentives and backing. Innovation in crop variety and quality is also anticipated to be a key differentiator in the market – it is an essential part of the future of CEA. CEA operators may focus on cultivating exotic or out-of-season crops, enhancing nutritional content, or developing core crop varieties tailored to specific dietary requirements.

In summary, Fera sees a transformation in the CEA sector, driven by technological progress, sustainability initiatives, increased investor interest, and market innovation. These developments are poised to address the current challenges and pave the way for a more robust, profitable, and differentiated CEA farming landscape in the years to come.

Source: Fera Science

What are your thoughts on CO2 Usage in Indoor Farms?

Carbon dioxide enrichment is a common practice in indoor farming, as it can significantly boost plant growth. However, the challenge lies in balancing the benefits with sustainability. Innovations in CO2 recycling and capturing technology are crucial for making indoor farming more environmentally friendly.

In addition to the existing practices, there's a burgeoning interest in integrating algae farming within indoor agriculture as a method of CO2 sequestration. Algae, known for their rapid growth and high carbon dioxide absorption rates, present a dual opportunity. Firstly, they can help mitigate the carbon footprint of indoor farms by consuming the CO2 produced within these controlled environments. Secondly, algae themselves can be harvested as a valuable by-product. This aligns well with the future diversification of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), where the goal is not just to produce food sustainably but also to create circular systems that minimise waste and maximise resource efficiency.

Moreover, algae have the potential to be a novel feedstock, particularly in the burgeoning field of insect farming. They can serve as a sustainable and nutrient-rich feed for insects, which are gaining prominence as an alternative protein source for both human consumption and animal feed. This presents a symbiotic relationship within the indoor farming ecosystem, where waste and outputs from one process become inputs for another, creating a holistic and sustainable model of production. The integration of algae farming into CEA could thus drive innovation, sustainability, and diversification in the future of food and agriculture.

One example (of many) of an organisation that Fera has collaborated with is Future-by-Insects (FBI). They have achieved CEA proof of concept for a circular feed system utilising microalgae and insects to produce a more protein rich feed ingredient compared to conventional soymeal. At scale the production of insect meal by this process has the potential to be carbon negative. Their project has demonstrated the ability to recover valuable resources from food waste and to create a sustainable and locally produced protein for UK's feed industry as one part of the CEA ecosystem working with Hilton Foods, Greencore and a team at Fera Science.

The inclusion of algae serves as an interesting model for a CO2 capture and recirculation system in CE farming. As mentioned earlier, there's ongoing research and development focused on breeding crop varieties that are more responsive to higher levels of CO2. These specially developed crops are engineered to perform photosynthesis more efficiently under elevated CO2 conditions. By enhancing their photosynthetic capacity, these crops can maximise the benefits of CO2 enrichment in CE farming. This means they can grow faster and potentially yield more, all while utilising CO2 more effectively.

This dual approach, combining algae-based CO2 recirculation with advanced crop varieties, potentially represents a significant step forward in making CE farming more sustainable and productive. Not only does it contribute to a reduction in the carbon footprint of indoor farming, but it also offers the potential for higher crop yields and resource efficiency. By integrating these innovative methods, CE farming can better address global challenges such as food security and environmental sustainability.

Source: Fera Science

Energy is a big topic in indoor farming right now. How can farm operators use electricity more efficiently?

Farm operators can enhance electricity efficiency by implementing LED lighting, advanced climate control systems, smart farming technologies, and exploring renewable energy sources. Collaborations like the Fera-FBI project explore combining food waste and algae as insect feed, demonstrating the potential for negative carbon footprint production. CE farms are also investigating circular processes, such as building farms near renewable energy sources and utilising heat recovery systems.

Farm operators can use electricity more efficiently by:

  • Implementing LED lighting, which is more energy-efficient and produces less heat.
  • Utilising advanced climate control systems that optimise energy use.
  • Adopting smart farming technologies that allow for precise control and monitoring of the indoor environment.
  • Exploring renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power, to offset energy consumption.

Another innovative area being explored is the concept of circular processes which focus on creating a self-sustaining ecosystem by integrating farms with local energy sources. This approach involves situating farms adjacent to renewable energy sources like biomass plants, wind turbines, solar panels, or water treatment power stations. The objective is to utilise these nearby energy sources to offset electricity consumption from the grid, thereby enhancing the sustainability of the farm. For instance, the heat emitted by LED lights, commonly used in CE farming, can be captured and redistributed to areas within the farm that require higher temperatures for crop growth. This technique allows for the creation of microclimates within specific zones of the warehouse or greenhouse, optimizing growth conditions for different crops.

Additionally, this circular approach extends to utilising waste products effectively. For example, biomass can be used as a renewable energy source to power the CE farm. The organic waste generated by the farm can then be recycled back into the biomass digester, ensuring that no resources are wasted and everything is transformed and reused. In some projects, similar principles are applied to water and recycling stations, exploring ways to use the heat generated by these facilities to power CE farms. Furthermore, underground water heating systems, possibly employing geothermal energy, are also being considered as a potential energy source. This holistic approach not only increases the efficiency and sustainability of CE farms but also contributes to reducing their environmental impact, making them a more viable solution for future agricultural needs.

Source: Fera Science

How can people connect with you or learn more about Fera?

Fera Science's offer to CEA businesses is multifaceted, addressing both the operational and strategic needs of the industry. Beyond the fundamental aspects of scientific research and consultancy, Fera provides vital support in crucial areas such as sanitary, phytosanitary, safety, and biosecurity aspects. This ensures that CEA businesses are not only compliant with stringent regulatory standards but are also at the forefront of best practices, safeguarding both crop health and consumer safety.

Additionally, Fera offers specialised services in nutritional analytical testing and quality assurance analytics. These services are essential for businesses aiming to meet and exceed the quality marques demanded by retailers. By ensuring that their produce is of the highest quality, CEA businesses can differentiate themselves in a competitive market and gain the trust of both retailers and consumers.

Fera also supports businesses in achieving sustainability goals through Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and carbon footprint assessments. By quantifying the environmental impact of their operations, CEA businesses can identify areas for improvement, implement more sustainable practices, and demonstrate their commitment to environmental stewardship. This not only aligns with the growing consumer demand for eco-friendly products but also helps businesses to future-proof their operations in an increasingly environmentally conscious market.

In summary, Fera's comprehensive support encompasses not only the enhancement of production and innovation within CEA businesses but also ensures that these advancements are achieved in a safe, quality-assured, and environmentally responsible manner. This holistic approach is what makes Fera an indispensable partner for CEA enterprises looking to thrive in today’s market.

Those interested in connecting with Fera or learning more about its services can do so through various means:

  • Visit the Fera website for comprehensive information and contact details for our principle science leads.
  • Follow Fera on social media platforms for updates and insights. We are active posters and routinely push out material and run webinars.
  • Fera frequently attends horticultural shows and conferences like Leaf farm walks, Festival of Fresh, Fruit Focus, Tomatoes Association Growers event, Sustainable Foods London, World Agri-Tech Innovation Summits. Please look for our stand and come and speak with us,
  • Reach out directly via email or phone for specific enquiries or partnership opportunities to either damian.malins@fera.co.uk and laura.rigo@fera.co.uk
  • Learn more about the work we deliver and our science in our Impact Report

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