Imagine a future where you go into a grocery store to buy some fresh basil, and, as you traverse the aisle, instead of polythene bags containing mass-produced snippets of the herb that have been flown in from thousands of miles away, in front of you are a stack of illuminated containers, each housing a mini basil farm.
The plants themselves are being monitored by multiple sensors and fed by an internet-controlled irrigation and nutrition system. Growing out from the centre, the basil is at ascending stages of its life, with the most outer positioned leaves ready for you, the customer, to harvest.
Now imagine no more, because, to paraphrase science fiction writer William Gibson, the farm of the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
Infarm, a 40-plus person startup based in Berlin is developing an “indoor vertical farming” system capable of growing anything from herbs, lettuce and other vegetables, and even fruit. The concept might not be entirely new — Japan has been an early pioneer in vertical farming, where the lack of space for farming and very high demand from a large population has encouraged innovation — but what potentially sets Infarm apart, including from other startups, is the modular approach and go-to-market strategy it is taking.
This means that the company can do vertical farming on a small but infinitely expandable scale, and is seeing Infarm place farms not in offsite warehouses but in customer-facing city locations, such as grocery stores, restaurants, shopping malls, and schools, enabling the end-customer to actually pick the produce themselves.
“When we presented our idea three or four years ago, people looked at us as though we [had] lost our mind,” says Infarm co-founder Erez Galonska. “We are the first company in the world that has put vertical farming in a supermarket. We did it last year with Metro Group, which is one of the biggest wholesalers in Europe, and now we are facing very big demand from other supermarkets that want to do the same”.
That demand — which has also seen Infarm recently partner with EDEKA, Germany’s largest supermarket corporation — is driven by a change in consumer behaviour in which “people are seeking more fresh produce, more sustainable produce,” says Osnat Michaeli, another of Infarm’s three founders (the other is Guy Galonska, brother to Erez). More generally, she says, the food industry is looking to technology that can help solve inefficiencies in the supply chain and reduce waste.
“Our eating habits have created a demand for produce that is available 365 days a year, even though some varieties may only be seasonal and/or produced on the other side of the globe… The food that does survive the long journey is not fresh, lacks vital nutrients, and in most cases is covered in pesticides and herbicides”.
In contrast, the Infarm system is chemical pesticide-free and can prioritise food grown for taste, colour and nutritional value rather than shelf life or its ability to sustain mass production. Its indoor nature means it isn’t restricted to seasonality either and by completely eliminating the distance between farmer and consumer, food doesn’t get much fresher.
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