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The Future of Food. Indoor farming

How do you picture Earth: A) covered in forests and buzzing with exuberant wildlife or B) molded by hectic city life? The correct answer is C) the Blue Planet is shaped by farms.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that half of all habitable land is used for agriculture (the other half is occupied by urban and built-up areas, forests, grasslands, and shrubbery; “non-habitable” are permafrost regions and deserts).

The need to grow more food

It is predicted that by 2050 there will be some 9.7 billion humans living on Earth. Feeding nine billion people gives food for thought (no pun intended). Skeptics lament that with a rapidly growing human population and the intensifying climate crisis, the world is in transition from an era of food abundance to one of scarcity.

Optimists such as Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, who led negotiations for the UN during the historic Paris Agreement of 2015, are calling for agricultural transformation. In their timely book on how to survive the climate crisis, The Future We Choose, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac share the hopeful vision of food abundance:

In community gardens, on rooftops, at schools and even hanging from vertical gardens on balconies, food sometimes seems to be growing everywhere.

But what are some game-changing food-production technologies? How do they bring farming closer to the consumer and enhance food security? In the series The Future of Food, I will be discussing three major disruptive technologies that are revolutionizing food systems in the face of the climate crisis, overpopulation, and resource scarcity:

  1. Indoor vertical farming
  2. Alternative protein foods
  3. Cultivated meat
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Indoor vertical farming explained

In this article, I explore indoor vertical farming, focusing on my country of residence Germany and my home country Lithuania. The concept of a vertical farm is far from new: the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon (or, as some historians suggest, the Hanging Gardens of Nineveh) might be the earliest example of a hydroponic vertical farm. Reinvented by high-tech companies and NASA research on food systems in space, today’s vertical farming has moved indoors.

Initially, skeptics did not believe that indoor farming could have advantages over “conventional” methods. Why do some food producers choose to stack crops indoors under artificial lighting rather grow them than in fields or greenhouses with free sunlight?

Essentially, the quest for alternative farming techniques results from necessity. “Conventional” agricultural production places an enormous burden on our environment that can no longer be ignored. Industrial monocropping is infamous for degrading and depleting the soil it depends on, decreasing biodiversity, and threatening insects. The most concerning effect from these practices is declining bee populations; the planet’s crucial pollinators are susceptible to pesticides heavily applied in monoculture farming. Furthermore, in the age of climate change, growing a single variety of species comes with a risk of widespread failure because monocultures are extremely vulnerable to disease, pest invasion, and unpredictable climatic factors.

Infarm, Europe’s vertical farming leader headquartered in Berlin, has demonstrated that hydroponic indoor farms are not only efficient, but also sustainable and resilient. The Israeli-founded urban farming start-up reports that compared to “conventional” agriculture their indoor farms use:

  • No chemical pesticides
  • 75% less fertilizer
  • 95% less water
  • 90% less transportation
  • 99% less space

Bearing in mind the climate crisis and its intensifying impact on agriculture, these numbers look particularly promising. How can a vertical farm achieve such efficiency? Indoor hydroponic farming functions in soil-free conditions; the seeds are planted in a substrate such as coconut fibers. The coco coir retains moisture, encourages the growth of good bacteria, and keeps roots healthy.

The use of hydroponic techniques also means that in the absence of soil, water pumps do the work of delivering water and nutrients to the plant roots. In the AI-controlled environment of modular farms, the roots are supplied with a perfectly formulated nutrient-rich solution. The benefit of this method is that nutrients and water that are not absorbed by the plants are recycled, making the system particularly water saving.

A farm-to-fork experience provided by Berlin’s supermarkets

Learning more about vertical farming makes me dream about a small indoor garden. Wouldn’t it be nice to harvest fresh herbs each morning in your own kitchen? German companies Agrilution and Neofarms offer intelligent vertical farming systems for individual clients. Tending to a personal high-tech garden, however, is an elite experience. The installation of a small hydroponic farm into your kitchen costs an arm and a leg, €2,904 to be precise.

More affordable are the microgreens grown in Berlin’s supermarkets. Edeka, the largest supermarket chain in Germany, has installed hydroponic farms in multiple stores throughout the capital. To try some of Infarm’s products, I head to an Edeka supermarket in Prenzlauer Berg, a hipster neighborhood in northeast Berlin. This supermarket has only a small Infarm hydroponic farm, but for my culinary needs it is more than enough. I find parsley, Italian basil, Greek basil, Thai basil, and other microgreens there.

Roots of a product grown on the Infarm hydroponic farm ©Elena Lazutkaitė

I choose a living coriander, Thai basil, and green mint, each packaged in paper sleeves and competitively priced at €1.26. The herbs have retained their roots, meaning they are still alive when harvested, and that helps them to maintain outstanding flavor and freshness. The paper packaging instructs the consumer to give the plants water and light once they bring them home.

I inspect the small plastic pot – long, strong, living roots in coco coir. What attracts me the most is the smell, which is more intense and richer compared to the herbs that are sold cut. It brings back childhood memories of harvesting herbs and salads from a nearby garden just before dinner. Today, children may not only get their greens from a supermarket but also rightfully believe that their food grows there, as is the case for some Edeka and Aldi supermarkets in Berlin or Marks & Spencer grocery stores in London.

Will all farming move indoors?

As urban farms are finding their way into people’s homes, unused city spaces, and supermarkets as well as well hotels, Michelin star restaurants and neighborhood café kitchens, the food supply chain shortens significantly and consumers can enjoy fresh, living, and nutritious produce all year round, regardless of what weather conditions have been like.

A logical question is then whether all vegetables, fruits, greens, and other crops will ultimately be grown indoors. Indeed, scientists predict that due to an unstable climate (storms and droughts as well as pests and diseases) agricultural production will increasingly move indoors. For instance, this August, the British newspaper The Guardian warned that the UK may face the worst wheat harvest since the 1980s. Due to consecutive seasons of extreme weather events, it is estimated that yields could be down by about 30-35% across the country. Similar problems have been reported across Europe.

Alas, for the time being, it is economically unfeasible to grow wheat or potatoes indoors. Thus, urban farmers focus on profitable microgreens and leafy vegetables that grow quickly and have a high selling price per kilogram.

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One of the biggest drawbacks of indoor vertical farming is that the system is energy intense. Despite lighting constantly evolving to become more efficient, indoor farms require a vast amount of power to run. As Robertas Katinas, the biochemist for Lithuanian vertical farming start-up Baltic Freya, explains, “The more photosynthetic light required, the more growing LEDs or high-pressure sodium lamps needed, the more electricity consumed, the more money spent. There are quite a few start-ups working on these energy efficiency problems, so we believe that eventually, it will be possible to grow any food crop profitably in a vertical farm.”

In the future, innovative technologies such as laser could be adopted to optimize lighting, and fiber optic cables could direct sunlight during the day to where it is needed in order to reduce the need for artificial light. But ultimately, for such a form of farming to be truly sustainable, it is essential to use clean energy rather than rely on the electricity generated by the combustions of fossil fuels.

Vertical agriculture redefines farming as an indispensable, prestigious job

Agriculture has always been an interruption of a natural system, whether outdoors or indoors, soil-based, or soil-free. While indoor vertical farms can significantly reduce the impact on the environment, biodiversity, and public health, since 2017 they are no longer able to be certified as organic in the European Union. The EU regulation excludes vertical farms on the basis that plants are not grown in soil.

Roots of plants growing in Baltic Freya's vertical farm ©Baltic Freya

Even if organic farmers are not (yet) interested in indoor farming, we have reason to be optimistic about the future of urban agriculture. Indoor vertical farms win awards and attract funding grants all around the globe. Helping cities to mitigate the threats to food supplies, minimizing the distance between producers and consumers, using less space and fewer resources, and defying poor weather conditions, indoor vertical farming has taken off in many European countries and is likely to transform agriculture worldwide.

Closer to home, the aforementioned Lithuanian company Baltic Freya has already joined the high-tech agriculture-bandwagon. The company develops a hydroponics “sister” technology called fogponics to grow plants vertically in … fog! Katinas explains that the main advantage of fogponics over hydroponics is the prevention of plant root disease. “Unlike liquid water, fog is an awful carrier of root disease. Therefore, fogponics solves the problem that destroys around 20% of greenhouse crops around the world each year,” he says.

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Another important advantage of fogponics is resource efficiency. According to Katinas, who is developing fogponics modules for greenhouse and indoor farmers, “Plants take in water and nutrients a lot more efficiently in the form of aerosol – fog. So, when you combine this method of water and nutrient delivery with circular principles, you end up with fogponics – a farming system that is four times more resource efficient than hydroponics.”

Talking with Katinas leaves me feeling optimistic not only about the efficiency of the system, but also about agriculture as such. The combination of mechanics, biochemistry, computer engineering, industrial engineering, and data engineering deployed in vertical farming is mind-blowing! While many European countries struggle to find enough agricultural workers to perform “conventional” farm work, urban farming seems to be trending among young and hip city dwellers. Located in urban areas, embedded in the values of sustainability and innovation, and promoted as a high-tech rather than backbreaking workplace, vertical farming attracts plenty of young talent.

Katinas too rejects the idea of farming as a menial job. “When you say farming, everyone immediately thinks about driving a tractor from one end of the field to the other. Indoor farming, no matter vertical or horizontal, is a whole different thing. It gives you meaning. After all, we are fighting climate change, soil erosion, water pollution, and global hunger. It offers you challenges – you need to find the best, the safest, and the most efficient way to grow food. Every day you learn something new. Every minute you are thinking about how to solve problems. You are always on your toes. And lastly, this is a business in an industry that will never die. Pandemic or not, we will always need food. Purpose, challenge, profits. If that is not a dream job, I don't know what is.”

Elena Lazutkaitė is a doctor in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies at The University of Nottingham.