At the end of the produce aisle in the Metro supermarket in Berlin, an indoor farming company is testing the ultimate in local food: Greens and herbs are growing inside the store itself.
The greens grow inside glowing modular boxes, in a design that the company behind the project, Infarm, says is so efficient that it can finally make vertical farming affordable on a micro scale.
"Pretty much any type of greenhouse needs scale to be economic and efficient," says Infarm cofounder Guy Galonska. "In our case, the technology we developed is kind of a building-block approach, and this building block reaches efficiencies that are much higher. . . . It works at a very small scale, just a few square meters. So it makes a lot of sense in your neighborhood supermarket scale."
Infarm designed new technology—including some patented techniques—to make the tiny farms possible. It uses every centimeter of space. Unlike a state-of-the-art greenhouse, where seedlings might be raised in a dense area but later moved, all stages of plant growth happen in a single area. "If you would look at our system, you would just see a sea of green," says Galonska. "You wouldn't see any wasted space or wasted energy."
Like other vertical farms, it has environmental advantages—not just eliminating transportation, storage, and refrigeration, but also using only a tiny fraction of the water or fertilizer typically used on a farm.
Some grocery stores, such as the Whole Foods in Brooklyn, have experimented with rooftop greenhouses. But Galonska says bringing the farm to the produce aisle also has advantages. "The biggest one is that you can integrate into pretty much any infrastructure," he says. "So you don't need to do any reinforcements to the building and special modification. You just come in, you install it. [After a week] you're up and running."
The pilot is inside a wholesale supermarket where chefs shop, which the company thought was the perfect place to launch the new system. Chefs can use an app to special order greens or herbs they can't get anywhere else, and the company will deliver the seeds and start to grow it. Chefs can also see stages of the plant that they may not have ever seen before if they've always lived in the city.
"We got many interesting responses from chefs who saw vegetables they know—because they use them every day—but they'd never seen the plants at 15 days old," he says. "This opens up new ideas for chefs. They really see the benefits of having a burger-sized lettuce and not a really big one."
It's also a more interesting way to shop. "It really engages people," he says. "You're used to having kind of a boring experience in the grocery store. You come and get your things. Here you see a farm—it's a piece of farm in the supermarket."
Though the pilot unit is growing herbs and specialty greens like mizuna and wasabi mustard greens, the system can be tweaked to grow other types of vegetables, from eggplants to tomatoes. The company plans to launch a unit for tomatoes and chili peppers next.
Eventually, they want to install the system in all kinds of supermarkets (and they also say they can scale it down so you can grow vegetables in your kitchen). But because of strong interest from restaurants and professional grocery stores, they're starting with a business-to-business model. They worked with the design firm Ideo to create the business model.
"They really got into the guts of the business, what we want to create, and the future we imagine," says Galonska. Businesses like the Metro chain will pay a low price for the vertical farming units, and then pay for software that helps automatically manage the unit—simple enough that any supermarket employee can handle it through an app.
"We call this farming as a service," he says. "It's similar to the software world—or kind of the razor blade model—where we sell the technology at relatively low prices, and then provide all the supplies and additional services, like the software, for example."
While many in the vertical farming world would say that urban farming will play a limited role in the future of agriculture—maybe just growing some extra greens—Infarm is convinced that almost anything will eventually be possible to grow in the city.
"In general, the view of vertical farming as a supplement is based on current technology," Galonska says. "If you take the current technology and just scale it up, you will get farms that just produce greens. But if you look forward 5, 10 years from now, you see the rate of technology that is expanding, evolving. We definitely see how vertical farming can supply many other things such as rice, soybeans, certain types of fruits. Will it replace completely all traditional agriculture? It will take some time. But Mars, for example, will be vertical farming only."
The current pilot at Metro has been running for almost six months, and will continue for at least another six months. By the end of the year, Infarm plans to start mass manufacturing. It may not be long before the system shows up in your own produce aisle.
All photos: Merav Maroody