If vertical farming takes off it may be case asking a farmer of the future how many storeys tall his farm is rather than how many acres it covers.
A demonstration unit unveiled recently by pioneering Scottish company Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) has been designed to prove the technology is now ready for uptake.
The £5m facility has been constructed on land rented from The James Hutton Institute at its Mylnefield site near Dundee.
The opening ceremony was performed by Deputy First Minister and local MSP John Swinney on Friday (August 24).
The facility houses four controlled-environment growing chambers within a single tower.
Each chamber holds racks of trays suitable for growing a range of fast growing herb and leaf crops.
Whenever a crop reaches maturity the tray is removed robotically for transfer to the packing hall.
Vertical towers such as this could replace greenhouses at about half the capital cost and with huge savings in inputs, IG claimed.
The challenge now will be for plant breeders at JHI and elsewhere to breed suitable crop types.
IGS founder and director Sir Henry Ackroyd said: “It is possible that tomatoes with very short trusses would fit this system or strawberries.”
The system would also be suitable for producing seed potato mini-tubers.
IGS had rapidly developed, Sir Henry said, from a specialist crop growing business to a technology and control management company and the plan was now to market the system around the world.
The key breakthrough had been the rapid development of LED lighting over the last 20 years. Not only was it now much more efficient but the cost had fallen dramatically.
Sir Henry added: “People think this must be a massive user of power but in fact our control systems allow us to balance with the grid within milliseconds so that we are using most electricity when there is surplus electricity available.”
IGS chief executive David Farquhar said he expected 95 per cent of the company’s technology to be exported. The first installations were being deployed this year in the United States and he expected this to grow rapidly to hundreds of facilities.
The Middle East and Singapore were also target markets with China planning to have 6,000 vertical farms in the near future.
“The global horticulture industry is crying out for new approaches to food production in terms of yield, quality and consistency,” Mr Farquhar said.
Vertical farming has the potential to reduce water and energy consumption by 50 per cent, food waste by 90 per cent and labour by 80 per cent.
JHI chief executive Professor Colin Campbell added: “There have been fantastic synergies coming out of this combination of IGS technologies and JHI’s cutting edge plant science. There are game changing opportunities here for new and conventional horticultural and agricultural systems."