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Business ideas for 2020: Urban Farming

With urbanisation meaning we have less and less arable land for farming and agriculture, urban farming is the solution we need to continue feeding the world in the future. Unsurprisingly, then, this field presents a wealth of business opportunities.

How much does the food I eat contribute to my carbon footprint? How are we going to continue to feed a growing population in the future? 

When it comes to the food we eat, these questions regarding the environment and overpopulation have taken centre stage in recent years – which might explain the growing trend of urban farming solutions. 

Urban farming, put simply, is the cultivation and distribution of food in urban or densely populated areas. More specifically, this can mean the DIY growing of food (or even keeping of bees or farming of bugs!) in your own home, or the high-tech setups such as vertical farming and Controlled Environment Production (CEP).

Vertical farming is the indoor cultivation of plants in a stacked formation, allowing for several rows of crops to be grown in vertically arranged layers. The produce is grown in a controlled environment (light and temperature) and, in some cases, even without any soil (thanks to techniques such as hydroponics). The urban spaces used for this farming can be anything from abandoned warehouses to shipping containers.

Finally, as people become more concerned about exactly where their food is coming from, and with ‘field-to-fork’ on the rise, it’s unsurprising that there’s been a surge in restaurants, companies and individuals wanting to grow food themselves in the city. Whether it be in a city allotment, on a rooftop, or on a tiny London apartment windowsill – we’re becoming much more inventive and resourceful when it comes to finding farming space!

Read on to learn more about the importance of this ‘trend’ (although you’ll probably realise this concept is much bigger than a passing curiosity) and the interesting variety of business opportunities urban farming presents for 2020 – and the future of the planet.


Why is urban farming a good business idea for 2020

“In order to feed the anticipated 10 billion people living on earth by 2050, food production must be increased by 70%,” says Thomas Constant, the founder of the brand new vertical bug-farming product startup BeoBia (don’t worry – more on that innovative idea later!). 

One reason urban farming is likely to prove a lucrative business opportunity in 2020 (and far beyond) is due to its necessity in an increasingly urbanised world with a crippling demand for more food. In addition, the growth of the industry will continue to be driven by a growing demand for produce that is high-quality and grown without the use of pesticides, in a way that does not negatively impact the environment and climate.

As The Telegraph reported in 2019, the desperate clamouring of the agriculture industry to keep up with the needs of a growing population has a huge environmental impact in terms of emissions.

urban-farming-demandSo, it’s no surprise that urban farming solutions are growing in interest and popularity. By 2022, it is predicted that the global vertical farming market will have an estimated value of $5.8 billion, having grown by 24.8% between 2016 and 2022.

On the home-growing side of things, a 2019 article from Insightdiy reported a 29% increase in millennials enjoying gardening, and that 81% of young gardeners claimed to grow plants specifically for food (53% said they grow their own produce as a cheaper alternative to buying and 45% for well-being and health reasons.) 

The buzz around this concept hasn’t gone unnoticed, with publications such as The Guardian writing about  how to grow your own food at home “even if you don’t have a garden”, and several companies such as above-mentioned BeoBia offering easy-to-use indoor farming solutions. 

If you’re still not convinced by the potential of urban farming, the many examples you can see around you in major cities around the UK may tip the balance. Looking to the incredible ‘green-roofing’ projects in Paris, the futuristic Growing Underground salad farm located 100 feet below Clapham High Street, and the 16-storey food towers on the cards for the future – there are plenty of examples which, as The Guardian put it in 2019, “show that urban agriculture is, in some cases at least, not a fad”.


Quick urban farming glossary

Urban farming can mean…

Urban agriculture – this term suggests urban farming on a large scale and with commercial intent (selling of produce).

Homesteading (in relation to farming) – the growing of food to feed yourself, in your own home, garden, allotment, etc. (no commercial intent).

Indoor farming – the umbrella term for growing produce entirely indoors, usually in artificial or controlled environments (light and temperature), like vertical farming.


Is it Brexit-proof?

The Grow Like Grandad blog, a finalist in the The Garden Media Guild Awards two years running, explained in 2018 about how new (hard) Brexit importing laws could have a dramatic negative impact on the price and availability of fruit and vegetables in the UK. The proposed solution? Grow your own. 

With one of the main focuses of urban farming being local production and distribution of produce, this concept seems to not only be Brexit proof, but possibly the answer to agricultural and farming issues posed by the leaving of the EU.


Urban farming: business opportunities

Starting a business as technologically sophisticated and large-scale as a commercial vertical farm may seem daunting, and will certainly require knowledge of the science behind growing produce and the relevant technology. However, there are now plenty of available resources, such as those offered by the Vertical Farming Academy, which offer step-by-step support to launching your own urban or vertical farming project.The UK success-story Growup Urban Farms also offers inspiration in its honest description of the somewhat rocky road it took to get to where it is today.

With the demand for vertical farms increasing, any business providing such projects with the technology they need will likely see demand for its products grow.

Some highly innovative home-farming products have come to the market recently, reflecting consumers’ growing interest in grow-your-own, homesteading, and self-sufficiency. One memorable example of this is BeoBia’s new home insect-growing pod, which allows users to farm insects to eat as a high-protein addition to their diets.

“The sustainability of insect farming, which uses a fraction of the land, water and resources needed for traditional livestock while producing greater nutritional benefits, is key to the demand of the product,” says Thomas Constant, the founder of BeoBia.

“Empowering people of any age to produce their own sustainable source of protein and make use of their food waste, even in urban locations, is one of the most effective ways consumers can impact the global food supply chain.”

Home-farming-bugs

BeoBia’s insect-growing pod

Moving from bugs to fungi, another grow-your-own concept comes from Fungi Futures CIC (trading as GroCycle) which operates out of an urban mushroom farm in Exeter selling ‘grow your own gourmet mushrooms’ kits – and there are many suppliers offering iterations of similar grow-your-own products.

Another potential business idea in this field: shipping containers.Yes, you read that correctly. As Johnathan Bulmer, MD at UK-based company Cleveland Containers, explains: “There is a billion-dollar demand for local food, due to environmental, economic and food-quality reasons. Because of this, the appeal of urban farming – specifically container farming – to consumers and businesses will only continue to rise.” With large container units being used as the home for an increasing number of urban and vertical farming projects, you can see why supplying the farmers with this equipment could be lucrative.

If hospitality is your area of expertise, you could take inspiration from an increasing number of restaurants who grow their own food locally, a world-famous example being Michelin-starred Noma in Copenhagen. Farm-to-Fork restaurants are growing in popularity in the UK and beyond, with more people conscious of the environmental impact of their meals and the farming standards behind the growing of the ingredients used.

Finally – and moving on from just food – the demand for responsibly farmed products is growing. “We are seeing a growing and enduring movement towards consumers selecting sustainably sourced and ethical products,” says Katie Tyndale, the founder of Bee Green Wraps, which offers an eco-friendly alternative to clingfilm, and Let’s Go Plastic Free, a lifestyle platform for eco-friendly products. Farming in a sustainable way to produce food or textiles to sell (at increasingly popular farmers’ markets and farm shops) would be a smart way to capitalise on this trend whilst doing your bit for the planet.

Business ideas in the field of urban farming could include:

  • Start a commercial vertical or urban farm 
  • Supply vertical or urban farming technology to related businesses
  • Create a farming product that consumers can use in their own home, even with limited space
  • Break into the growing market of edible insects and insect farming
  • Supply (shipping) containers for indoor farming projects
  • Start an eatery which grows its own ingredients
  • Create and/or sell locally farmed, eco-friendly products (urban growing, beekeeping, etc.)

Is it sustainable?

Sustainability is, essentially, what urban farming is all about. The challenge it aims to solve is the current unsustainable situation of food demand outweighing agricultural production. Compared to traditional farming methods, vertical farming uses an estimated 95% less water. It also encourages food to be grown very close to where it is eaten, meaning the financial and environmental costs of transportation are minimal.

Insider opinion

Urban farming businesses are likely to thrive owing to the absolute necessity for change in how we farm and eat. Thomas Constant explains that, “we are currently living in a ‘food enlightening’ period. Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious about where their food comes from, what impact their diet has on the planet, and what nutritional benefits their diet offers them.”

Dr Richard Anderson, the Head of Learning & Development at High Speed Training, adds, “Urban farming is on the rise and leading the millennial food revolution.

“The food industry is one that is constantly changing, and many companies may feel that they are not able to keep up with their competition. However, in order to not only compete, but also thrive, they should look at alternative and niche methods that put them a level ahead of the rest. 

The implementation of urban farming methods is a fantastic example of how issues relating to the environment and food fraud can be overcome by adopting a forward-thinking approach to the traditional method of farming.”

Robyn Summers-Emler
Robyn Summers-Emler

Robyn Joined Startups as the Deputy Editor in 2019, bringing with her first-hand experience of working in Berlin’s startup scene. Along with the Editor, she helps determine the site's content strategy, and contributes to creating engaging, aspirational articles and campaigns aimed at making a positive impact on your small business and the wider startup community.