Online grocer Ocado invests £17m to bring robot run vertical farms to the world

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

The way we grow crops today is inefficient, and vertical farms offer companies a new way to grow organic crops en masse without ruining the planet.

 

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I’ve been talking about new ways to produce our food for years now, from growing enough chicken nuggets to feed the world by using just a single cell from a single chicken feather, through to 3D printing beef in space, and, back down to Earth again, by growing copious amounts of fresh, organic veg using up to 99 percent less water and 100 percent less chemicals and herbicides by growing crops in vertical farms that could be anywhere, whether it’s the middle of a desert, in a city, or in some company’s warehouse.

 

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Now, Ocado the British online food retailer looks like it’s following in Jeff Bezos’ footsteps after he invested over $200 million in a vertical farm company called Plenty, by investing £17m of their own hard earned cash in another high tech vertical farming company as they rachet up their ambitions to grow their own herbs and veg right alongside their robot-run distribution centres.

The online grocery specialist has bought a 58% stake in Jones Food, a vertical farm company that grows 420 tonnes of basil, parsley and coriander a year in stacked trays under 12km (7.5 miles) of LED lights in a warehouse in Scunthorpe, UK. The grower currently supplies businesses such as sandwich maker Greencore.

Duncan Tatton-Brown, finance director of Ocado, said the group could open at least 10 more similar vertical farms within five years. He said it could take less than a year to build a Jones Food facility and the two companies were now considering how Ocado’s expertise in robotics and AI could be used to make Jones Food more efficient.

 

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James Lloyd-Jones, chief executive of Jones Food, said the group’s Scunthorpe farm recycled all its water, did not use pesticides and was powered by renewable energy, such as wind turbines and solar panels.

Ocado’s £17m investment also includes the formation of a new joint venture – Infinite Acres – with US based vertical farming business 80 Acres Farms and Priva, a Netherlands-based horticultural technology provider, on a four-year project to develop off-the-shelf vertical farming systems that can be sold to retail and other businesses worldwide. The 80 Acres farms, which are based in Ohio, Arkansas, North Carolina and Alabama, are able to grow tomatoes and courgettes as well as leafy salads and herbs, without using pesticides – or fields for that matter.

 

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Tim Steiner, Ocado’s chief executive, said: “We believe that our investments today in vertical farming will allow us to address fundamental consumer concerns on freshness and [sustainable farming] and build on new technologies that will revolutionise the way customers access fresh produce.”

“Our hope ultimately is to co-locate vertical farms within or next to our [distribution centres] and Ocado Zoom’s micro-fulfilment centres so that we can offer the very freshest and most sustainable produce that could be delivered to a customer’s kitchen within an hour of it being picked.”

 

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Ocado Zoom is a new one-hour delivery service offering a more limited range of goods, launched earlier this year and being trialled in west London.

Only eight people work at the Jones Food facility, where the herbs are grown hydroponically – getting all the nutrients they need without soil. The plants, the first of which were only grown last year, are not touched by humans from seed to bagging ready for stores. A robot farmer called Frank stacks trays of plants on to towers of shelving while machinery automatically harvests them when ready.

Every element inside is monitored to ensure it is clean and primed for growing the herbs quickly. Anyone entering must wear protective clothing including overalls, wellies and hairnets and step through an air shower that blows off any dust. Air is filtered to ensure insects cannot enter.

 

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Ocado currently sells Waitrose groceries via its website in the UK and provides distribution for Morrisons’ website. Next year it will swap Waitrose for Marks & Spencer under a £750m joint venture, raising the prospect of specialist robot farms serving the 134-year-old high street retailer.

Ocado has sold its hi-tech robot grocery picking and packing technology around the world to retailers wanting to develop online businesses. In one blockbuster deal it is to build 20 warehouses for US supermarket giant Kroger. It has also struck grocery delivery technology partnerships with Groupe Casino in France, Sobeys in Canada and ICA Group in Sweden, creating a ready-made potential market for its robot farms.

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