In the food production sector, the drive for sustainability is creating innovative businesses with very different site and location requirements.

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In food production, sustainability is a big issue. According to the UK Government’s Food and Farming Report, many current global food production methods are unsustainable in the long term.1 As a consequence, innovation is leading to new methods of producing and growing food for both humans and animals, and the businesses involved often have more in common with process industries than traditional agriculture. This has profound implications when it comes to site and location selection. For innovative food producers, the best location may well be a site more usually associated with chemical and process manufacturing.

Global factors are driving the growth of innovation in food production. Forecasters suggest that there will be a 70% increase in calorific demand by 2050 due to growth in world population2. At the same time, countries are committing to decreasing the output of greenhouse gases, more than 25% of which come from agriculture, forestry, and land-use change2. Additionally, in developed nations there is demand for alternative proteins led by a swing towards plant based vegetarian and vegan diets, with research showing that about 30% of UK adults plan to eat more meat-free products in 2021 than in 20203. Investment and innovation in the sector is essential if we are to meet future demand for lower carbon, sustainable alternatives to traditional agriculture.

Innovative food production methods don’t only increase the amount of food that can be grown per square meter, but also enable indoor production in areas that would not previously have been suitable for agriculture. A single vertical farm, for example, can grow four hectares (the area of 5 Olympic size swimming pools) worth of food in less than half a hectare of land. Some companies are using what were previously regarded as waste products to produce animal feed. Others are utilising industrial processes to grow proteins as an alternative to meat.

Rather than basing themselves in traditional food production regions, these businesses are looking to industrial sites and locations to meet their needs.

Different methods of food production inevitably have different requirements, but low-cost energy and heat, together with specific industrial gases on-tap, are necessary for many companies operating in the sector. Scott Taylor, AVP Business Development at Sembcorp Energy UK, explained why their Wilton International site in Teesside, which is usually associated with the chemical and process sectors is attracting wider interest from companies in this new sector.

The advantages of a ‘process industries’ site for food production

“Increasingly we’re seeing interest from innovative food production companies,” Scott said. “Wilton International offers ‘plug and play’ infrastructure and services to all our clients, as well as available development land. There’s a strong alignment between the site and firms interested in setting up scaled production in the food sector”.

We can provide lower cost electricity through our private wires network – an essential for companies who are high users of round-the-clock lighting, for example. We’re also able to provide heat at various grades through our steam network. Various processes in this industry need heat, whether to keep the ambient temperature suitable for fermentation, cell growth or other food production methods, or to sterilise equipment and ingredients.”

Another valuable asset is Wilton International’s pipeline network from BOC to facilities on the site.

The benefits of locating within an industrial cluster

“Because we’re a part of the Teesside industrial cluster - the largest in the UK - it’s possible for what is effectively waste from our customers’ industrial processes to be used as feedstock for innovative food production,” Scott explained.

“We’re always keen to find ways of increasing the sustainability and circularity of businesses on the site, which makes it an excellent location for food products grown in vertical farms or by other novel agricultural methods.”

The Teesside cluster is very welcoming to new, incoming businesses,” Scott said.

“The area’s well-established expertise in chemicals, process and general engineering leads to great flexibility within the workforce, and provides a strong knowledge base for innovating businesses. For example, the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) located in the Wilton Centre, right next to Wilton International, partners with industry for R&D, and is a centre of excellence for innovative foods and agri-technology”.

Freight connectivity is an additional benefit of locating within the industrial cluster, according to Scott.

“Teesside is well served for freight transport by road, rail and sea, which enables fast access to UK population centres and international markets. Because the companies at Wilton International transport feedstocks and products in large volumes, there are private rail sidings on site, and it’s just 3 miles to Teesport and the River Tees bulk freight terminals.”

The drive for sustainability is transforming the food production sector, its businesses and their location requirements. And while sites like Wilton International might not be traditional food production locations, they respond to the specific needs of investing businesses in this new, innovation and technology-focused environment.