The future of fresh local produce could include distributed farming, with more foods being grown in smaller systems right near the point of sale, instead of everything being shipped in from larger growing operations.
We’re seeing massive progress in distributed energy these days, which is enabling a whole new energy ecosystem, but when it comes to veggies, could a similar model work? Distributed farming could be the next frontier in the bid to reduce the carbon footprint of fresh foods, and allow for ‘just in time’ and “smart” growing systems that produce on-demand harvests of some greens and herbs. Infarm, a Berlin-based startup, is pursuing this aim with its modular vertical farming units that are placed directly in grocery stores, where customers can pick the freshest possible veggies, greens, and herbs, with no unnecessary transport involved.
“INFARM is pioneering on-demand farming services to provide urban communities with fresh, nutritious produce, by distributing smart vertical farms throughout the city, directly where people live and eat.
“Our autonomous, modular farming units can be stacked to meet any space or demand, whether that be a restaurant, supermarket or even in a warehouse. Each hydroponic farm is monitored and controlled through our robust central farming platform that can adjust the growing environment to ensure each plant gets the best conditions to thrive.
“We specialise in growing leafy greens, herbs, lettuces and microgreens that are flavourful, beautiful and nutritious, 365 days a year, no matter the season.” – Infarm
Infarm’s modular vertical growing units have already found homes in a Berlin METRO Cash & Carry location, and the company is partnering with EDEKA, Germany’s largest supermarket corporation, to bring more “zero-mile” produce to shoppers. In addition, at least one “vertical farm to table restaurant,” Berlin’s Good Bank, has incorporated the Infarm system.
The units incorporate hydroponic systems, LED lighting, an array of sensors, and “a robust hardware and software platform for precision farming” that allows for an optimized growing ecosystem that enables a “perpetual daily harvest.” Trays of growing plants are moved from the center of the unit to the outer portion of the unit as they grow, and remote monitoring by Infarm’s team helps optimize growth and/or troubleshoot any issues as they arise.
“Each farming unit is its own individual ecosystem, creating the exact environment our plants need to flourish. We are able to develop growing recipes that tailor the light spectrums, temperature, pH, and nutrients to ensure the maximum natural expression of each plant in terms of flavor, colour, and nutritional quality. Whether that be an arugula from Provence, Mexican tarragon or Moroccan mint.” – Osnat Michaeli, Infarm co-founder
Infarm recently raised an additional €4 million in funding, with investors keying into the company’s unique approach to growing fresh food locally, which centers around centrally-controlled and remotely-monitored installations that incorporate machine learning and smart growing algorithms. Instead of container- or warehouse-sized vertical farms, smaller individual units placed right at the customer’s eye level allow for a small physical footprint, while also being able to be scaled up to higher production levels with the addition of more units.
In an interview with Agritecture, Infarm co-founder Erez Galonska points out the huge environmental footprint of our modern food system, which is one of the reasons the company is taking on the goal of enabling more “zero-mile” produce:
“Our food travels 1500 km, passing through 28 pairs of hands and wasting incredible amounts of energy. On top of that, 30% of the food produced is wasted before it arrives to our plate. Agriculture has become one of the most harmful industries to our planet. It is responsible for 70% of the planet’s water use, for up to 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as for the degradation of soil. We must increase production while consuming less resources and creating less environmental impact. Growing locally and by demand eliminates waste, as well as all the need for transportation. Growing hydroponically saves 90% water and 70% fertilizers. Growing vertically, in a controlled environment, allows to maximize space and to farm year round.” – Galonska
Hydroponic growing operations can help slash water use in agriculture by a factor of 10, which isn’t news to anybody following the topic of food production technology, but according to Michaeli, Infarm’s systems also grow fresh food with a carbon footprint that’s a mere fraction of conventional produce, telling Uproxx that “by minimizing 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 0.350kg compared to up to 3.7kg for lettuce imported from Spain.”
Some conventional and organic purists have taken issue with growing food under artificial light and in soil-less systems, due to the perception that it’s “anti-nature,” but proponents of local agriculture and greener food systems are increasingly drawn to efficient indoor growing systems because of their small water and carbon footprint, as well as their ability to grow year-round.