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What growing inside an InFarm facility. Image credit: InFarm

Infarm’s indoor wheat suggests we re-examine the realities of vertically-farmed commodities

November 15, 2022

  • Berlin-based vertical farming startup Infarm says it has “successfully” grown wheat on an indoor farm without soil.
  • First trials demonstrated that at scale, vertical farming could produce the equivalent of 117 tonnes per hectare per year, or 26 times that of open-field farming yields.
  • Infarm said that with more technological development, indoor yields could increase a further 50%.

Why it matters:

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to grow wheat indoors. That said, war and a shaky supply chain make the prospect of growing commodities via controlled environment agriculture (CEA) highly attractive in 2022.

Negotiations to extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative between Russia and Ukraine are, as of this writing, ongoing. The UN- and Turkey-brokered deal ensures the safe shipment of grains to millions of people globally. Ending it risks ending food security for those people.

Meanwhile, inflation is forcing food companies and consumers alike to seek out cheaper alternatives. Global wheat consumption is declining as a result.

Up to now, vertical farms have mostly grown leafy greens, herbs, and limited amounts of specialty crops like strawberries.

In theory, growing wheat in vertical farms could enable more local production that happens around the year. This would increase wheat’s overall availability, and less of the world’s wheat supply would depend on harmonious geopolitical relations.

CEA wheat production could also aid against drought, which is expected to hamper crop growth in the future.

“Being able to grow wheat indoors is a milestone for Infarm and of significant importance for global food security, as wheat is a calorie-dense but resource-intense crop that is a core component of diets worldwide,” Erez Galonska, CEO and co-founder of Infarm, said in a statement.

Commodity challenges

That said, Infarm and others face an enormous challenge with producing commodities at scale in vertical farms.

The indoor farming sector continues to grapple with high energy and production costs. Economies of scale are especially important when it comes to commodity crops that provide a significant portion of the world’s diets. In other words, premium pricing for vertically grown indoor wheat is not an option.

Space is also an issue. As Bloomberg recently noted, wheat requires more land than any other crop: “To satisfy current needs at Infarm’s projected yields would require indoor farms exceeding the area under wheat in France.”

Companies are also starting to shutter, suggesting we may be in that ‘trough of disillusionment’ part of the technological hype cycle some predicted.

That’s possibly the best time to start talking about growing commodities indoors since troughs of disillusionment are all about correction, reassessment, and honest conversations about what’s possible.

If realistic at scale, vertically farmed commodities could be a positive shift for food production. If CEA can steer clear of over-hype and over-promising, it may have a chance to discuss and discover how to move towards that reality.

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