iFarm: could vertical farming be the future of agriculture?

Vertical farming is seeing increasing investment as food growers, suppliers and retailers begin to see the benefit of farming closer to where consumers live. Joe Baker finds out from an expert behind the iFarm project why this concept could revolutionise food farming in the future.

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In the future, the food we eat could be grown by an AI farmer and plucked from vertically stacked trays in a high-tech urban greenhouse. This is vertical farming, which has taken increasing strides as hydroponic technologies evolve and concerns about arable land proliferate.  

The global vertical farming market hit approximately $2.1bn last year, and, according to the Global Vertical Farming Market 2019 report, is projected to grow by around 25.7% over the next decade. Tech companies are increasingly exploring the potential of ‘urban farming’ - moving crops from fields to inner-city greenhouses, and from temperamental weather to AI-perfected conditions.

The iFarm project is one such initiative. Founded in 2017 by Russian entrepreneurs Alexander Lystovsky, Maxim Chizhov and Konstantin Ulyanov, the start-up’s 30-strong workforce is seeking to revolutionise farming through the provision of modular, automated greenhouse units to urban environments. 

Recently, the company landed $1m in backing from Gagarin Capital, a venture capital investor in high-tech start-ups, and is currently working with a number of food chains, restaurants and grocery stores in a bid to grow their business. But why take farming indoors, and what does this actually entail?

Food ‘programmed to perfection’

According to iFarm Head of Europe Yury Federov, the project sprouted from the founders desire to source their own fresh salad and vegetables where they live. When they found technology offerings lacking, they opted to do it themselves. 

“We have been able to build a technological platform to grow salad from vegetables, but also build showrooms to find our first customers, who are really happy to get fresh salad on a constant basis all-year round,” says Federov. “We've been able to prove [that] the technology we have developed is working really well and can grow more than 100 different salads, herbs and vegetables.”

The prospect of ‘synbiotic’ products combining both pre and probiotic elements should be considered for potential benefits.

We collect more than 50 different [data] parameters from every square meter of fertilised soil

Aimed at small and medium-sized businesses, iFarm’s modular automated greenhouses are able to accommodate all manner of crops, and are designed to fit in a variety of urban spaces – from defunct warehouses to building roofs. Inside these greenhouses, cloud-connected software automatically controls all aspects of the environment – including the temperature, water supply, and lighting, right down to the nutrients mixed into the soil – allowing the company to effectively ‘programme the qualities of the plant’. 

Using a centralised database, urban farmers are able to download growing recipes designed to maximise the quality of specific crops, based on data collected and analysed by a team of iFarm scientists.

“We collect more than 50 different [data] parameters from every square meter of fertilised soil,” says Federov. “We have computer vision, which verifies the stages of growth and gives signals on when to harvest and what to do with every crop.” 

Providing benefits to farmers and food sellers

Federov says that so far the idea has so far appealed to farmers who might be unable to produce the same high-quality vegetable produce for local stores throughout the entire year. However, because recipes can be easily downloaded it could appeal to a new type of urban farmer – one who might be tech-savvy, but doesn’t know their onions when it comes to growing actual onions.

“In many cases, these are tech entrepreneurs who understand cloud-based technologies and that fresh food is in very high demand, but they don't really see themselves going outside the city,” says Federov. “They see themselves operating technology with the help of their computer or their mobile phone.”

One criticism of vertical farming has been energy demand. A recent Independent article noted that lettuces grown in vertical farms required 3,500kWh a year for each square metre of growing area, compared to an estimated 250kWh seen in traditionally heated greenhouses.

iFarm’s representatives say it has developed agricultural techniques that significantly reduce the electricity, water and fertiliser needed for cultivation compared to conventional methods. One innovation unique to the company’s farms is its energy-efficient LED lighting, which has significantly reduced the cost of its farms.

We can act when the [food] is really in the best state to be served and that’s what restaurant owners want

Because iFarm’s greenhouses are modular they can be adapted to a variety of sizes and indoor spaces, making them ideal for locations in the city. Closer proximity to food suppliers in the city means that pesticides and chemical treatment isn’t required – food can be delivered quickly to restaurants and food suppliers. What’s more, the company has also developed display pods for restaurants that keep food fresh and add a wow factor to the dining room.

“In traditional farming, people would harvest plants when the taste is not formed yet when the qualities of vegetables are not finalised,” says Federov. “We can act when the [food] is really in the best state to be served and that’s what restaurant owners want.”

One major area where vertical farming can help restaurants is in trimming food waste. Industry watchdog Wrap says that of the total 3,415,000 tonnes of waste disposed of in the food sector every year, 600,000 tonnes of waste is from pubs, restaurants and hotels. Federov says that they had one customer who was forced to consistently waste 50% of their mint supply, after being compelled to buy too much of the ingredient to meet demand.

“Herbs and certain salads are very difficult to preserve at the site,” he says. “Just by having contracted us, [the client’s] waste was significantly reduced.”

Challenges for the future: navigating regulation and energy requirements

Having opened six greenhouses and vertical farms in Russia, iFarm’s founders now seek to use the Gagarin investment to help develop technology, expand its construction, engineering and agricultural projects teams, and commence construction on a location in Europe for the first time in April. 

Federov says that Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain could be potentially ripe avenues to explore. However, one of the biggest challenges in entering the international market is navigating the heavy regulations on the food industry. 

“For every market where we enter we need to build our own showroom or our own farm and then prove to local authorities and to local consumers that what we do is really is really worth it,” he says.

“We were setting up the company with growth in mind - that's why we developed this modular system for all our vertical farms which allows us to adjust the construction of the farms to basically every size and form of indoor space. It also simplifies and speeds up the construction process for every farm or greenhouse which we build.”

The iFarm project is just one of many other fledgling businesses driving the vertical farming trend. US-based Freight Farms makes a crust turning old shipping containers into thriving crop production centres. Another company in the US, Bower Farming, is opening a swathe of new facilities following a $90m investment led by GV (formerly Google Ventures). 

The energy requirements of vertical farming may be a caveat that producers will need to provide a strong counter to in the future. However, as projects like iFarm show, the trend is showing no signs of withering any time soon. 

It’s important that consumers understand that all those nicely labelled containers on store shelves are not vetted by the FDA.

The global market for prebiotics is predicted to reach $7.91bn by 2025

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