Could vertical farming be the future?

Cutting food waste, introducing greater plant varieties and offering more flavourful food are just some of the potential benefits.

15 February 2018
farmingfood wastesupermarketssustainabilitytechnologyvegetables
image credit: Merav Maroody

Imagine food being grown at the point of sale and a customer being able to pick a rare herb or ingredient that usually isn’t in season.

Well, it’s already possible, and the tech is coming to London later this year. German group Infarm has launched vertical farms into supermarkets and restaurants in Berlin. Now, it has its sights set on 1,000 urban locations throughout Europe by 2019.

A single two-metre-square farm unit can deliver 1,200 plants per month. It’s not just a case of chucking some seeds in and seeing how they grow; plants are carefully cultivated through technology, with no pesticides required.

So when did farming get so high tech?

Under surveillance

The vertical farms are actually connected to a version of Big Brother, or as Infarm describes it, a ‘central farming platform.’ This means each farm is a controlled ecosystem that tailors the light, temperature, pH and nutrients to maximise size, colour and taste.

This tech allows Infarm to collect 50,000 data points throughout a plant’s lifetime, with each farm acting as a data harvester. The information on plant growth is sent from the farm to the platform 24/7, allowing it to learn, adjust and optimise.

“We are able to grow a wide diversity of products, introducing rare species and plant strains that can be grown all year round, independent of seasons,” said Erez Galonska, who co-founded Infarm with his brother Guy and Osnat Michaeli.

“What is also an incredible advantage of growing in urban environments, is the ability to grow plants that are not typically on offer because they are too delicate to survive the supply chain.”

Giving the people what they want

Personalisation is key to the platform. The company can create the farm based on the customer’s needs – whether it’s different varieties for a certain supermarket location or ensuring the flavour of produce suits the palate of the area.

Infarm operates more than 50 farms in supermarkets, restaurant kitchens and distribution centres throughout Berlin.

It has partnered with two of Germany’s largest retailers, Edeka and Metro, placing in-store farms into various locations, where it grows dozen of herbs and leafy greens, including a unique bonsai basil from Greece.

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Fighting food waste

When Infarm was started, the goal was to redesign the entire supply chain from start to finish. Instead of building large-scale farms outside of the city, optimising specific yields and distributing the produce, the company decided it would be more efficient to do it directly where people live and eat, said Galonska, adding that the current food system is extremely inefficient.

“Statistics show that our food travels about 1,500km, goes through 28 different pairs of hands and wastes incredible amounts of valuable energy to reach the end consumer. More than 30% of produce is wasted before it even arrives to our plates,” he said.

“By minimising energy usage for transportation and refrigeration, Infarm’s produce can be up to 10 times more environmentally friendly. For example, here in Berlin, the CO2 footprint of Infarm-grown lettuce is just 350g compared to up to 3.7kg for lettuce imported from Spain. The potential for energy saving is pretty astounding.”

Going global

Worldwide expansion is on the agenda. Aside from London, Infarm is also planning launches in Paris and Copenhagen. “Our ambition is to reach cities as far as Seattle in the United States or Seoul, South Korea, with our urban farming network,” said Galonska.

A recent funding round also means the company has set its mind to more product development for varieties of tomatoes, chillies, mushrooms, fruits and flowering vegetables.

“Whether that be mint from Peru or an ice plant from the sandy beaches of Jaffa, by eliminating the distance between farm and fork, we offer produce that has retained all of its nutrients and therefore, intense natural flavour,” said Michaeli.

Restaurants are also getting in on the action. German chef Tim Raue has a farm and is growing exotic varieties for Restaurant Tim Raue, which is listed as one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. “Now I can choose to have any plant from around the world growing just footsteps away from my kitchen,” he said.

No word on where exactly these farms are going to land in London yet, but we are keen to pick up some worldly delights right off the supermarket floor.

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