Strawberries From Siberia: vertical farming and the future of food production
Food security will be a rising issue in the coming decades, which is why we need to rethink the way we grow crops to suit the needs of our society and environment. Skolkovo’s iFarm is one of Russia’s leaders in this area and is building vertical farms both at home and abroad with the aim of localizing food production.
The future of the food industry
The way we produce food has changed more over the last century than in the thousands of years following the agricultural revolution. The advent of machinery, artificial fertilizers, pesticides, drone technology, factory farming, genetic modification, and so on – industrialized agriculture in other words – have all increased food production to levels never before seen in history. The average person nowadays consumes many more calories than our ancestors, and at no time in our past was the choice of food so great or sourced from so many different parts of the planet. Indeed, modern technology and transportation mean that we no longer have to wait for the right season to buy salads, tomatoes or fruits that only grow in warm climates. Why wait until the summer when you can buy tomatoes imported from Spain?
This has, of course, come at a cost, with agriculture accounting for a large proportion of habitat loss and greenhouse gas emissions. Also, while the modern food system is more productive and complex than anything previously, there are a number of challenges facing it. One of these is the global supply chain, which was disrupted by lockdowns put in place to fight the spread of Covid-19; with food supplies slowed, governments and commercial entities have been compelled to rethink their strategies for ensuring food security. A long-term challenge for the food industry is population growth – projections expect the global population to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, and this has repeatedly raised the question: How do we feed the world? Running alongside population growth is urbanization. Right now, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and another 2.5 billion people are expected to move to urban areas by 2050. If that wasn’t enough, the persistent warnings from the scientific community project that climate change poses a dire threat to food production as well as access to fresh water.
With these challenges facing us, it is clear that food security is going to be a pressing issue in the not too distant future. That is why innovators are already developing new solutions for food production and one such solution combines artificial intelligence with vertical farming. The recent lockdowns across the world showed the vulnerabilities in the supply chain and spurred new interest in vertical urban farming, which offers localized, energy- and water-efficient food production year-round.
To many, the idea of a vertical, urban farm is still abstract or even unknown. Yet a vertical farm does the same thing as a conventional farm – it grows food – but occupies up to two thirds less space because of multi-tier growing areas, consumes two thirds less water, is energy efficient when combined with renewables, and does not require pesticides or fungicides. Because vertical farms are indoors and not exposed to the elements, they can be used in any part of the world; even underground! They also produce high yields and do not encroach on wildlife. What is there to lose?
What is iFarm?
iFarm, a Skolkovo Foundation resident, is leading the way in Russia in the sphere of vertical farming. The company is developing a network of vertical farming projects both within Russia and abroad with the aim of helping food growers localize production. It is also researching more efficient methods of raising difficult crops indoors such as strawberries. The iFarm system combines high-efficiency technologies that include LED lighting and smart power control, and a hydroponics system combined with patented dehumidifiers developed by iFarm engineers to save and reuse water; it also utilizes AI software (iFarm Growtune) to monitor crops – a necessary tool for so-called “precision farming” that puts iFarm ahead of the game in Russia and places it alongside international competitors. The software enables the grower to monitor the microclimate without pause and manage all of the farm processes – even predict demand and forecast sales.
Last year, the company attracted $4.4 million in investment as a result of its developments. It has farm projects underway in Finland, Andorra, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and the UAE, and is now seeking expansion into other EU markets via its European HQ in Finland.
The main targets in Europe are northern countries like Norway, which don’t have favorable climates for growing greens. However, even though the Spanish are able to grow salads and herbs all year, growers there are also interested in vertical farming methods.
The projects in Saudi Arabia and the UAE serve as good examples of how useful vertical farms are in harsh climates. Both countries import much of their food because of the lack of arable land, but vertical farming technologies allow them to localize production for crops that they normally could not grow. Who could have imagined growing lettuce in a desert?
“Last year, many countries concluded that local production would allow them to have a stable amount of produce for their own citizens,” said Maya Gorodova, iFarm’s chief commercial officer. “We received a lot of requests from Europe and from local retailers, which had previously been cautious about localized production. They understood that localized production would save a lot of money on logistics and increase their margins.”
Covid-19 and the supply chain
A domestic example of localized production using iFarm technology is a vertical farm with an 1873 square meter planting area, located just outside Moscow. It supplies a major supermarket chain and numerous restaurants with salads and herbs. According to Ms. Gorodova, retailers that import greens regularly have issues with spoilage; the result is that demand for produce from iFarm’s vertically grown crops, which are significantly fresher and travel a short distance, currently outstrips the company’s supply capacity.
“Sometimes retailers have to discard up to half a container of imported produce because it takes so long to arrive,” said Ms. Gorodova. “That is a big problem because the pandemic has already reduced the amount of available produce from abroad. Migrant workers, who normally travel to pick crops, were suddenly unavailable due to lockdowns, and so a lot of food went to waste as a result.”
For now, the company is supplying lettuce, herbs and edible flowers to restaurants and retailers, but it also intends to supply strawberries in the near future. With its own lab in Novosibirsk, Siberia, iFarm has successfully managed to grow strawberries in a vertical farm setting, producing fruits with the same sweetness and nutritional content of conventionally grown crops.
“The company is at the last stage of experimenting with growing strawberries before scaling up production,” said Ms. Gorodova. “iFarm’s laboratory in Novosibirsk is still driving towards the point where it is financially viable to produce them, while in terms of smell and taste the fruits are ready to go. We are also developing systems to grow cherry tomatoes and cucumbers.”
An iFarm vertical farm has its own microclimate in that nothing inside is exposed to external elements; air that comes in through the ventilation system is filtered and reused. This means that dust, pollen, bacteria, insects and fungus won’t affect crops. Likewise, water that comes in from the outside mains is filtered though osmosis before entering the hydroponic system.
“As a rule, greenhouses are ventilated with unfiltered air from outside, whereas the air in a vertical farm is filtered, so no external elements influence crop growth,” said Ms. Gorodova. “We have our own built-in ventilation system that continually circulates and filters the same air. The same goes for the water system. The water is filtered using osmosis, so it is as pure as it can get.”
Given that water waste is a problem these days, the ability to reuse water confers another advantage to the vertical farming system. During growth, plants excrete water through transpiration. With normal farming methods, discarded water from transpiration would simply go to waste, but iFarm’s system utilizes dehumidifiers to capture it from the air for reuse.
iFarm’s vertical farms do not use soil. Seeds are instead housed in turf to germinate and the roots reach down to the water below, which contains the right balance of nutrients according to the plant type. The water feed system contains artificial nutrients that are added at different concentrations depending on the plant. These are, in fact, the exact same as naturally occurring soil nutrients, but the delivery methods to the root systems may differ.
iFarm hydroponics system. Source: https://ifarm.fi/blog/2020/10/how-vertical-farming-helps-save-water.
“The hydroponics system not only allows us to give very precise quantities of nutrients to our crops, but also means that we do not have to use pesticides or fungicides,” Ms. Gorodova stated. “The main problems with conventional growing are insects, fungus and pollen, which can destroy crops. Fungicides and pesticides are used in greenhouses and on open crops, because you need to protect them. While greenhouses are enclosed, there are many factors that are difficult to control, such as lighting. On a sunny day, there could be too much light and heat; this is bad for certain crops. You could also have too little light and the temperature can drop too far. These fluctuations cause plant stress, and the greater the fluctuation, the greater the effect. This can influence the size, flavor, and so on.”
LED lighting allows growers to control the amount of light crops receive; this is crucial, seeing as some plants prefer more light, while others prefer less.
iFarm is able to provide all the equipment for an industrial vertical farm; it also offers technical services to help with the setup. A vertical farm set includes multi-tier iron structures, LED lighting and power supplies for lamps, a fertigation unit (to deliver nutrients straight to plants), industrial osmotic installations for water treatment with trays and covers, IoT sensors, surveillance cameras, a germination chamber, seeds, peat, fertilizers, cups, and so on. A 2000 square meter planting area (800 square meter premises area) on average produces 6.2 tons of produce per month and requires 250-260 kW (peak) of electricity per week.
iFarm’s main technological product is its artificial intelligence-based monitoring system, iFarm Growtune. Even though vertical farming offers many advantages to traditional farming, on a large scale it gets technically complicated and financially demanding; and that is not to mention the difficulty in finding qualified staff to manage such an installment. According to iFarm, the AI platform reduces labor costs by up to 20%, which in turn lowers the end-cost of produce.
Growtune monitors lighting parameters, nutrient content and concentration, microclimate (CO2, temperature, humidity), plant and growth rate, farm staff activities, and so on. In terms of monitoring crops, it can spot inconsistencies – disease, size, condition – in plant growth at an early stage.
With its combination of an online library (more than 158 growth recipes) and software algorithms, the AI platform helps simplify vertical farm management. The platform’s algorithms are regularly updated with big data from IoT-devices, computer vision, and production and sales reports collected from farms around the world, making it an ideal tool.
iFarm technology is a “turnkey solution”; so, should you decide to build your own vertical farm with iFarm technology, the SaaS-platform will be integrated into the automation system instantly.
The pandemic also spurred a new interest in vertical farming from a different clientele – private homeowners hailing from 87 different countries.
“We still only work on a B2B basis, but we want to work in B2C in the future. Last year we received requests from homeowners who want to grow their own fresh vegetables and greens in their apartments or country homes, and they were interested in our Cropper module,” said Ms. Gorodova.
The iFarm Cropper is a standalone, showcase-like module for growing greens on several tiers. According to the company website, the cropper module is designed for retailers and restaurants. It ensures ideal conditions for growing and storing plants and herbs, but iFarm is developing it further so that a user can grow a plant from seed.
“We want it so that you can order a cartridge with the seed inside, you place it into the module and the system does everything for you with its own microclimate,” said Ms. Gorodova.
The largest module can yield up to 15 kg of produce per month, consumes on average 11.2 kW*h per day, and provides a 5 m² planting area.
Vertical farms powered by iFarm technology supply large Russian and foreign supermarket chains such as Azbuka Vkusa, Perekryostok, Lenta, Auchan, and Metro Cash & Carry. According to Ms. Gorodova, to get a return on the initial investment into iFarm’s technologies takes four years on average.
“More than four years is rare; you have to consider other factors such as the cost of electricity,” she stated. “How a producer sources electricity is an important factor. A farm requires a lot of electricity and if the price is lower than average prices, or if the client has alternative sources of energy such as renewables, then you’re talking about a return within two and a half to three years.”
It is clear that with short- and long-term changes taking place around the world, a new approach to food production is long overdue. Food security is important for every society, both in terms of stability and for business, and now that the technology is available to grow food in unfavorable environments, what is to stop the move towards high-tech, sustainable food production?