Until recently, the UK has imported crops such as avocados, bananas and oranges from warmer climes. But things are starting to change, and advances in controlled environment agriculture could lead to more crops grown in seasons and places they otherwise could not have flourished in.

The future is already here for some popular crops – with tomatoes, lettuces and cucumbers grown in vast, controlled environments where everything is optimised, from the lighting and temperature to nutrient delivery, irrigation and harvesting. The aim is to automate where possible. Although such facilities typically use a lot of energy, they are far more efficient in their use of land and fertilisers. They use around 95 percent less water than outdoor farming and, coupled with a green energy supply, could help agriculture’s carbon footprint become lighter. Because the climate inside the facility is independent of the climate outside, growing warehouses can be built anywhere and produce crops at any time of year. That means fresher, tastier, produce than crops that are picked unripe before spending days on a truck or plane to the UK. It could also mean better quality fresh produce on supermarket shelves and, in time, perhaps cheaper fresh products too.

The future is already here for some popular crops – with tomatoes, lettuces and cucumbers grown in vast, controlled environments where everything is optimised, from the lighting and temperature to nutrient delivery, irrigation and harvesting

The Dutch have been growing tomatoes and cucumbers this way for years, along with other global leaders that include the farming sectors in Japan and Israel. Now, the UK is joining them, with ambitious large-scale infrastructure being built at the Thanet Earth facility in Kent and Jones Food Company in Scunthorpe. It could be that we start to see bananas from Ballymena or oranges from Orkney. Scientists and farmers are also starting to experiment with more difficult plants that have so far resisted being grown indoors. Indoor agriculture is ready to graduate from mass production of tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers to growing a far wider range of fruit and vegetable plants including perennials such as trees, vines and bushes; unlike vegetables that just live for one growing season, trees need to be nurtured and trained to grow, produce and be happy over many years.

Other challenges in broadening the range of crops suitable for indoor agriculture include accommodating complex root systems that don’t adapt well to hydroponic nutrient baths, optimising pollination in sealed environments that don’t have wind or insects, or even just learning to manage unwieldy plants that are taller or wider than current greenhouse designs can house. Then there is the challenge of doing this cost effectively. Imported fruit and vegetables are cheap and plant factories are not, so there is work to be done to raise yields and cut costs even once the technical challenges have been overcome. The tech doesn’t just need to work in the lab – it needs to be ready for market, easy to manage and practical to use. So a lot still needs to happen. But the lower-hanging fruit – large-scale production of leafy greens and berries in controlled environments – could happen much sooner.

Why does this matter? It’s not just a question of taste or quality. With the UK only producing around a quarter of its fresh produce needs, we are vulnerable to supply chain disruptions and price fluctuations in imports – starkly illustrated by shortages caused by the pandemic, Brexit and the HGV driver shortage. Just 10 countries supply two-thirds of the UK’s fresh produce. Many of those locations are due to experience water stresses in the near future, which could render both field and traditional greenhouse agriculture in some of these regions unviable.

While the economics of fresh produce are still, for now, tipped in favour of outdoor and imported production for most crops, we are reaching a tipping point – with reliable, affordable, year-round production of an ever-wider range of crops becoming feasible. This availability could transform food environments where fresh produce is thin on the ground, helping people to eat more healthily, too.

Much of the history of food production has focussed on moving beyond what the environment can provide. The invention of agriculture tamed plants and animals and put them at our service. Irrigation and deforestation reshaped the landscape. Artificial fertilisers let farmers produce more than the soil, unaided, could grow. While none of these developments have come without challenges and other impacts, controlled environment agriculture is another bold step in the future of food production – creating perfectly tailored, artificial environments that produce crops with unprecedented industrial efficiency and huge health potential. For once, the promise of industrially produced food is that it will taste better.