How often do you eat a tomato that’s as tasty as you remember them being in your childhood? Not often right? And when you do it’s likely an heirloom variety you’ve picked up at your local farmers’ market. That’s because the varieties of tomatoes that are mass produced have been bred to survive volatile outdoor environments, grow quickly, resist disease and also last longer on the grocery store shelves or in your fridge.
But with the advent of indoor agriculture, where many of those characteristics are unnecessary, it doesn’t need to be like this, according to John Reich, Scientific Program Director at The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), the government-backed agency tasked with spurring innovation together with the private sector.
Indoor agriculture, or controlled environment agriculture, is a term to describe farming inside structures as opposed to outdoors in fields. It can range from completely enclosed vertical farms that use artificial lighting to high-tech greenhouses that use sunlight but can control other environmental factors such as temperature and ventilation.
“Indoor agriculture is not effected by weather or location,” Reich tells AgFunderNews.
This week FFAR launched the Precision Indoor Plants (PIP) Consortium, a $15 million public-private partnership with a consortium of leading agtech startups, agribusinesses, and biotech companies, to research the potential for indoor farms to grow new varieties of crops that have improved nutritional values, taste and other characteristics harder to achieve outdoors. It will also research how the application of other technologies, such as computer vision and big data, can be used to advance the industry.
Joining FFAR from the private sector are New Jersey vertical farming group AeroFarms, German agrochemicals company BASF, crop genomics platform Benson Hill Biosystems, LED lighting group Fluence Bioengineering, genetics giant Intrexon, the Japan Plant Factory Association, and indoor agriculture digital systems and automation group Priva.
FFAR is investing $7.5 million in the project, which is being matched by the private players either monetarily or in-kind through services.
Since the majority of vertical farms currently focus on producing leafy greens, the consortium will focus on lettuce first in the hope of some quick wins. “We already have a lot of information about the genetics and metabolic characteristics of lettuce,” said Reich, adding that tomatoes and strawberries will be PIP’s next low-hanging fruits (yup, a pun!) for similar reasons. The more ambitious crops they have decided to work on are blueberries and cilantro, he adds.
For each crop, the consortium will aim to optimize the plant architecture for controlled environments; advance the speed of breeding technology; alter the chemicals produced in plants that impact flavor, nutrition, and medicines; and develop new technologies to quickly detect specific chemicals without harming the plant.
“PIP’s research could produce a tomato plant that grows quickly indoors, tastes great and is highly nutritious. This plant would require less energy to grow indoors, potentially increasing affordability, and could be grown anywhere regardless of environmental constraints,” says Reich.
A New Frontier for Indoor Ag
While AeroFarms’ chief marketing officer Marc Oshima says the company has already been conducting similar research with a $1 million grant from FFAR from 2017, vertical farming groups have typically focused on developing high-tech digital and automation technologies, rather than looking at plant genetics, argues Mohammed Oufattole, vice president of research & development at Benson Hill.
“Everyone I talk to in indoor agriculture is using crop genetics adapted for outdoor field conditions,” he tells AgFunderNews. “The indoor agriculture industry is still fairly new and for the first few years, many indoor farming groups have focused on the engineering side of it, such as the lighting environment, the growing conditions [and automation]. Now they’ve gotten through that to some extent, it’s time to think about the genetics of the crops they’re growing to create nutritional benefits and other consumer-driven traits that are in demand.”
Producing food with added benefits beyond a limited or eliminated use of pesticides — one of the key marketing angles today — could be a boon for the fledgling indoor ag industry that has at times struggled with the economics of building and scaling indoor farms, from the high energy costs of lighting to the shortage of skilled, suitable labor.
“In order for indoor agriculture to fully reach its potential, it has to be able to grow a variety of crops profitably, which typically it can’t,” said Reich. “So if we can figure out how to raise the nutrient content or taste profile of crops, or even use plants as a form of producing medicine using controlled environment agriculture, this scientific understanding lets our partners, and also the public as a whole, develop new products that might be profitable for them.”
But beyond driving more premiums to the industry, the consortium is keen to spread the learnings across the agriculture industry, perhaps even presenting benefits for the outdoor farming industry too, adds AeroFarms’ Oshima. “Our lens is much broader than just vertical farming; we want to have an overall impact on the industry to solve major issues and also hopefully serve as an inspiration or catalyst for other players to foster more innovation.”
All research and discoveries developed as part of the consortium will be available to the public, after a short embargo time when the private partners will have early access. How they choose to use the information commercially is up to them, according to Reich. And Oshima expects the go-to-market strategies on any of the discoveries will be “quite different.”
Growing the Consortium
PIP’s broad-ranging knowledge and expertise highlight the importance of bringing multi-disciplined teams together to solve and improve the food system. What has typically been a secretive and competitive industry, as startups race to grab venture funding dollars while developing technologies in-house to bring down costs, indoor agriculture, and the agtech industry at large, is appearing increasingly collaborative in recent months.
“I think there’s a healthy appreciation that the challenges we face are much bigger than one individual company; we need multiple stakeholders at the table if we’re trying to impact agriculture overall,” says Oshima.
PIP could grow to bring on more partners in the future, although it has limitations on the number of consortium members. However, it will be working with external parties on various aspects of the research, according to Mohammed.
“As we define the problems we want to solve and the approaches to take, we will want to look for the best technology or infrastructure to deliver on this and that might outside of the consortium,” he says. That means that some of the funding could go to another vertical farming group, genetics company or academic institution, for example.