When Swedish vertical farming company Ljusgårda set out to develop a sustainability plan, the company took an uncommon step: To ensure it made informed decisions, Ljusgårda pursued a comprehensive, research-based Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) based on actual key performance indicators (KPIs) from its commercial vertical farm.
“We had a clear mission to understand, scientifically, where we could have the biggest impact in terms of our sustainability work,” says Co-founder and Chief Research & Development Officer Erik Lundgren.
“So before we made a sustainability plan, we agreed to make a full LCA from cradle to grave and let the insight from this work guide us when making a long-term plan on how we can become better as a company.”
Grown in a former furniture production warehouse in Tibro, Sweden, Ljusgårda’s packaged lettuce goes to more than 500 retail stores throughout the country. Plant production accounts for about 1,700 square meters of the warehouse’s 7,000-square-meter footprint. In 2022, the vertical farm’s lettuce production was 520 metric tons.
To achieve its assessment goal, the Ljusgårda team approached scientists they collaborated with on previous projects. IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute and KTH Royal Institute of Technology researcher Michael Martin, alongside researchers Mugahid Elnour and Aina Cabrero Siñol, completed the 14-month-long Ljusgårda life cycle assessment.
The peer-reviewed paper detailing the LCA, “Environmental life cycle assessment of a large-scale commercial vertical farm,” has now been published in the journal Sustainable Production and Consumption. Citing the paper’s publication, Martin notes, “It provides empirical evidence on the environmental sustainability of vertical farms, their sensitivity to modeling and data choices, and compares KPIs and the environmental performance of packaged lettuce with conventionally sourced lettuce.”
Key takeaways from the LCA research
Details of Ljusgårda’s comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment, found in Martin’s published paper, offer many compelling takeaways, not only for vertical farmers but for controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) as a whole.
Lundgren is thrilled to point out one key finding was that Ljusgårda has already attained a 50% reduction in CO2eq footprint compared to imported and conventionally farmed lettuce. In addition, he says Ljusgårda’s three top takeaways — and focus areas for further, continued improvement — are as follows:
- Electricity: The right mix of electricity is critical to sustainability gains. “We are already running 100% renewable in our mix, and we are soon implementing new projects to become 100% self-sufficient with solar,” Lundgren says. But even with those advances, he adds, electricity is currently responsible for roughly 45% of Ljusgårda’s CO2eq per kilogram of edible, consumer-ready, packaged lettuce.
- Context/Location: Context is integral to understanding Ljusgårda’s results. “It makes a lot of sense to use vertical farming in areas with harsh climates that therefore have a high percentage of imports,” Lundgren says. The vast majority of Ljusgårda competitors in the Swedish market are from Italy and Spain, with lengthy, complex, refrigerated transportation driving higher CO2eq. He adds that sustainability comparisons would be much different in markets dominated by local production and sourcing.
- Yields: Ljusgårda’s LCA was based on actual metrics from one year of commercial production (excluding optimized tests and trials). Reducing CO2eq/edible kilogram through increased yields is a differentiator. Lundgren explains Ljusgårda has focused on pushing yields to increase kilogram/square meter production. “We are not really using less than others, just producing way more,” he shares. To reduce its CO2eq/kg, the company hasn’t focused on reducing the resources used, but on increasing the kilograms produced with the same resources.
Leading from inspiration to impact
Lundgren emphasizes that making informed sustainability decisions remains a primary LCA goal. “There were a lot of bold claims from our industry, but no one seemed to have real numbers,” he says. “Having a full LCA of our own commercial operation is important for our sustainability plan, but also to our communication. We now know who we are and what we do, therefore we can make bold claims, supported by research, that is helping us to inform and educate our consumers.”
Ljusgårda is promoting the LCA results in its communications, marketing and packaging for the “normal greens grown a supernormal way,” but Lundgren says that’s secondary. “Most important is to guide us on where we should put time and resources to have the highest impact in terms of sustainability. We really want to align our efforts to where it makes the biggest change,” he says. “We also decided, without knowing the results, to make our LCA a published and transparent article. To lead the way and inspire others to do the same.”
Images: courtesy Ljusgårda