The risks to food security from the world’s growing population make it imperative that agriculture innovates. The world’s population will reach just under 10 billion by 2050. To feed everyone, global food production is predicted to have to increase by around 56%. As arable land is increasingly impacted by rising temperatures, pests, and diseases, climate change makes the move to sustainability ever more essential.
One answer to this problem is smart farming.
Few countries have embraced the burgeoning potential of smart farming with as much vigour as the Netherlands. Despite the country’s small size, ranking only the 69th most populous nation in the world — it is second only to the United States for agricultural exports. This remarkable feat saw the Dutch export €91.7 billion worth of agricultural goods in 2017.
Precision in miniature
Precision farming is a modern approach to agricultural management that places an emphasis on using technological innovation to carefully measure, monitor, and respond to the needs of plants and animals. It helps increase yields, input efficiency, reduce labour costs, and raise the profitability of agribusinesses. It also reduces the environmental impact of food production, improving overall sustainability.
Vertical farming is one area of smart farming that has taken off in recent years. This involves growing plants not in the ground, but in tightly controlled hydroponic beds that can be housed on shelves within greenhouses. This allows farm space to be maximised over multiple levels — of particular advantage in urban settings.
The Dutch vertical farming start-up FarmVent, is taking this idea to new ground: miniaturisation.
The company’s team believes that now is a time when food production should be brought closer to consumers, explains CEO and founder Nikolaos Alfieris.
“For that reason, we are developing the world’s first fully autonomous farm vending machine for growers and retailers,” Nikolaos says.
Nikolaos is in his final year of a Masters in Biosystems Engineering at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands.
His company’s two-metre tall, self-contained indoor farm uses a combination of IoT, data science, machine learning, and LED lamps to grow more with less. The first proposed prototype can house 500 herbs — such as basil, mint, thyme or sage — over four shelves.
The solution is ultra-efficient and produces far less waste than traditional approaches. The process uses 90% less water and reduces the use of pesticides and fertilisers by 75%. And, of course, being grown in-store, the solution removes the need to transport plants from a separate growing site, reducing their carbon footprint by 90%.
“The customer only harvests if the product is sold. Where herbs quickly perish in the normal vegetable section, in the FarmVent they continue to grow, and therefore remain fresh for much longer,” Nikolaos explains.
The company acknowledges that herbs are not going to feed the world, but sees this as an excellent way to start the exploration of miniaturised vertical farming techniques.
“We must start somewhere, and herbs are the easiest to start with: they are sold as a plant and are nice to look at. This is important — the customer must be willing to buy,” Nikolaos says.
The company hopes to have its first instalment with retailers by 2021.
Wageningen University: growing solutions
FarmVent is one of many start-ups emerging from StartHub Wageningen, an incubator and educator for students and recent graduates of Wageningen University and Research (WUR). The core focus of the hub is the development of entrepreneurial competences for students. FarmVent received its first grant funding through this program.
Wageningen University itself is world-renowned for its contributions to sustainability, holding fast to its motto — “to explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life.” In 2019, WUR was the world’s most sustainable university for a third year in a row.
WUR has an array of initiatives related to protecting the environment. Research disciplines at the university include Food and Hunger, Nutrition and Health, Biodiversity, Climate Change, and Circular and Biobased Economy.