Updated: Feb 10, 2021
In our Getting to Know... series, we interview key members of Liberty’s team with expertise in different aspects of vertical farming.
Today, Dr. Emma Campbell joins us to tell us a bit about her current work, her background in the industry and what she thinks we can do to work towards a more sustainable future. Emma previously led Future Farming Hub (FFH) research and managed IHCEA facility built in partnership with CHAP and based at the James Hutton Institute. Emma is currently FFH Research Advisor at Liberty and is an expert in growth protocols tailored to specific crops. She is also the lead Technical Writer for Liberty Produce with regular contributions to our Future Farmer Medium Blog. Check out her Growing at Home series (also documented on our Instagram)!
What’s your academic background?
I studied for my BSc (Hons) Microbiology at Dundee University, fully intending to go into the field of medical microbiology. However, the opportunity arose to do a PhD under the supervision of Prof Claire Halpin at the University of Dundee (James Hutton Institute) to study the utilisation of the 2A peptide from Foot and Mouth Disease Virus (FMDV) as a tool for plant biotechnology and I decided this would be an interesting route to go down. While studying for my undergraduate degree, Britain saw devastating mass culling of cattle due to FMDV and I was intrigued by the idea that a peptide from such a pathogenic animal virus could be used to stack beneficial genes in a plant for human consumption.
Following my PhD, I worked in the laboratory of Prof Ian Toth (The Hutton, Plant Health Centre for Scotland) studying the pathogenicity of Pectobacterium atrosepticum in potatoes for over 12 years before joining the team.
What are you currently working on?
I work as a scientific research assistant in our custom built R&D vertical farm. This involves developing protocols for various plant species in three different types of hydroponic systems and making any necessary modifications to the growth conditions, such as media used and nutrient addition.
What’s your favourite part of this job?
There are lots of good parts to this job! I love that we’re at the cutting edge of technology and using it to try and improve the sustainability of food production. I’ve discovered that there’s no limit to the crops you can grow in hydroponics, which has resulted in us growing some weird and wonderful plants in our system. Thanks to the controlled environment, we can grow crops constantly all year round which means you don’t have to wait for spring or summer to do an experiment – you can do it whenever you want! This is a massive advantage when growing crops.
What do you enjoy growing at home?
At home I enjoy growing the same things that most people do – tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and peppers. Although, since starting to work with Liberty, I have become a bit more adventurous and now enjoy experimenting with different herbs and microgreens. I also keep some ex-battery hens so that I can have a supply of fresh eggs to go with my home grown produce.
Could you walk us through a typical working day?
A typical day involves checking on the plants growing in the IHCEA and checking that everything is running smoothly. I examine all the plants visually to check they look healthy and adjust light levels, nutrition and pH as required. Before a growth trial starts, all of the hydroponic systems have to be dismantled and thoroughly cleaned and seeds need to be sewn for germination. All of this can be quite a lengthy process. I also try to seek out potential collaborations between Liberty and The Hutton that benefit both parties.
When did you first get into Vertical Farming?
I only really got into vertical farming when I joined the team here. As I previously worked at the Hutton, I saw the shipping containers being situated on site and was fascinated by the idea that there would be a functional vertical farm inside of them. Luckily, I was offered the post managing the facility and soon got to see the farm. Vertical farming is such a modern technology that I was really excited to see exactly what we could do with it. I think it’s absolutely fantastic that we have this modular system which allows you to transport and operate amazing farming technology pretty much anywhere in the world.
What, or who, was your biggest inspiration in Vertical Farming?
I would say that I take my inspiration from many scientists, especially those at Liberty and The Hutton. The positive response to the IHCEA has been incredible! Scientists and farmers alike are fascinated by the potential that it gives to further improve crop breeding and research; many scientists have approached me with potential collaborations.
It’s wonderful to see that people from all backgrounds are embracing the technology and really want to unite to provide a secure future for local produce.
Seeing these reactions really inspires me to try and develop protocols and push the system to determine where we need to make changes to improve things further.
What advice would you have for researchers, scientists and growers who are just starting out in the industry?
Go for it! This is such an exciting time to be starting out in vertical farming. It’s been around long enough that lots of the initial risks associated with a new technology have diminished significantly but there is still so much exciting work and development to be done. I really look forward to seeing how this technology is going to branch out.
Also, if you have any problems, don’t be scared to approach other vertical farmers or growers. Most are more than happy to help a new start up company and Liberty is delighted to help growers, scientists, and start-ups. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you need help – we’re all in this together!
What do you think is the most important thing that we, as individuals, can do to work towards a more sustainable and food-secure future?
I think that we really need to get back to basics – get out in the garden and grow your own or grow some herbs in a pot on your windowsill. Encourage children to take an interest in where their food comes from and get them planting. There really is so much enjoyment to be had from producing your own food.
We constantly need to be educating others and discussing the need for new food production technologies to make the general public more aware of just how severe food shortages will be if we continue to use traditional agricultural methods.