Vertical farmers, known for growing herbs and salads indoors, have made a breakthrough in the quest for global food security: cultivating wheat in the same controlled environment.
Amsterdam-based startup Infarm grew wheat without using soil or chemical pesticides, and with far less water than conventional farming. The first indoor farming company to grow a staple crop is a milestone for a nascent industry that’s attracted venture capital funding on a promise that its technology can help feed the planet.
“To continue to feed the world’s growing population, we need to achieve higher crop yields which we have now proven to be possible for wheat,” said Guy Galonska, chief technology officer and the co-founder of Infarm. “We are confident that wheat can be grown successfully at scale indoors as a climate-resilient alternative.”
So far, indoor farmers have delivered premium foods such as herbs, salads and occasional fruit. They’ve also faced questions over their relatively high production costs, energy usage and the ability to scale.
If delivered at scale, growing a staple crop indoors has the potential to be a game changer. Supplies have increasingly been challenged by climate change and logistical issues, with the war in Ukraine highlighting the world’s dependence on few breadbaskets. So having alternative sources of crops could offer a buffer for any future supply disruptions.
Infarm said that its first trials show projected annual wheat yields of 117 tons a hectare. That compares with average 2022 yields of 5.6 tons a hectare in the European Union and 3.1 tons in the US, which are some of the world’s biggest exporters, according to estimates from the US Department of Agriculture.
The company achieved those stellar yields thanks to six growing cycles per year, compared with just one in open-field farming, said Pádraic Flood, team lead for crop genetics at Infarm. Pampered by the right amounts of light, humidity, temperature and nutrients, indoor plants perform to their full capacity in the absence of stress or disease, he said.
But in real life, the challenges remain huge. Achieving scale and keeping costs low to compete in commodity markets will be crucial and there is a big question mark over access to energy to power indoor farms, potentially creating new vulnerabilities.
A lot of land will also be required to produce the staple. Wheat cultivation takes more than 216 million hectares of land, more than any other crop. To satisfy current needs at Infarm’s projected yields would require indoor farms exceeding the area under wheat in France.
Infarm, which is co-hosting a food systems pavilion at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh this month, said it could potentially increase its yield by a further 50% in the coming years thanks to better technology.
© 2022 Bloomberg