Urban Growing

The role of aeroponics in sustainable food systems: LettUs Grow

By Ramona Andrews

Renewable energy-powered aeroponic farms can significantly reduce the environmental impact of fresh produce compared to imports, according to a new study by researchers from Brunel University London and Bristol-based LettUs Grow.

LettUs Grow designs and builds aeroponic technology and farm management software for indoor and vertical farms, which are known to be extremely high in energy use. Energy costs, financially and environmentally, are one of the greatest challenges to scaling up this kind of farming. Using electricity gives the opportunity to source from 100% renewables, which can significantly lower impact on the environment.

A new research paper titled “The role of aeroponic container farms in sustainable food systems – The environmental credentials” has shed light on the potential of aeroponic container farms as a sustainable method of producing fresh produce. The research, which was published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, was conducted by a team of researchers from Brunel University London and LettUs Grow.

Aeroponic container farms are a new and innovative method of farming that involves growing crops in a controlled environment without soil. This technique involves suspending the plant roots in a nutrient-rich mist, which helps to optimise crop growth and reduce water usage. The research paper explores the environmental credentials of this farming method and its potential to play a crucial role in sustainable food systems.

LettUs Grow’s ultrasonic aeroponic irrigation systems allow farmers to grow up to twice as fast as hydroponics, which is the system of growing plants by feeding them on mineral nutrient salts dissolved in water, also without soil. Aeroponics uses zero soil and zero pesticides, as well as less water and fertiliser than in outdoor farming.

The study examined the environmental impacts of an aeroponic container farm system in the UK across a full set of 19 sustainability indicators. The results of the study were significant, as they demonstrated that aeroponic container farms could offer lower-impact food when compared with imported produce. This could have significant implications for food security in terms of availability, stability, and access to food.

According to the study, the energy source used to power the aeroponic container farm is crucial in reducing the environmental impacts of the system. An aeroponic container farm system generates 1.52 kg CO2eq./kg pea shoots using the 2021 UK grid. However, using solar or wind power can reduce greenhouse gas emissions of aeroponic container farms by up to 80%. This means that producing fresh produce locally in renewably powered aeroponic containers can produce fewer emissions than importing salads from most of Europe.

The research is a crucial first step in advancing the conversation around the role of aeroponics in sustainable food systems and how renewable energy integration can fit into this journey. The study provides evidence for policymakers and decision-makers to understand the benefits and trade-offs of aeroponics when compared with imported foods, showcasing examples of when the aeroponic production system delivers foods with competitive (and sometimes better) environmental performance than similar imported products.

Jack Farmer, study co-author and Chief Scientific Officer at LettUs Grow said: “This is one of the first studies of its kind. It evaluates aeroponic vertical farming’s environmental credentials under real-world scenarios. As with any agricultural technology innovation, container farms are best placed to benefit the environment in specific use cases, locations or for specific crops. This research is integral for allowing us to make educated decisions about where and how an aeroponic container farm should be used to create a positive impact.”

If you’d like to read the paper in full, it is open access and available in Volume 860 of the Science of The Total Environment

LettUs Grow was founded in Bristol in 2015 by University of Bristol alumni Charlie Guy, Jack Farmer and Ben Crowther – find out more about the company and what they are working on. LettUs Grow conducts world-leading research into controlled environment agriculture from their research centre in Bristol, working with partners such as John Innes Centre, Harper Adams University and Agritecture. The team achieved B Corp status in 2022.

LettUs Grow is one of the many organisations working on Urban Growing in the city. Explore the Bristol Good Food 2030 directory to find out which organisations are helping to make Bristol’s food system better for communities, climate and nature, and how you can connect with them – search for Urban Growing or view the full list.

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