One such company is iFarm, which has developed, via hydroponics, the automated vertical farm management technologies that allow to start growing salads, spicy herbs, berries and vegetables quickly in the urban environment.
The company, which is based in Helsinki and which to-date has launched 11 industrial farms in Finland, Russia and Kazakhstan with a total planting area of more than 8,000m², says there a few reasons why it spots an opportunity amid the COVID-19 crisis.
First, it’s observed a surge in demand for fresh vegetables, greens and fruits. This growth can be explained by the fact that people are more inclined to cook in quarantine, according to iFarm CEO Alexander Lyskovsky. “Healthy eating and an overall healthy lifestyle are now trending even more. However, people cannot always access fresh green produce,” he told FoodNavigator.
He added the crisis has proved the importance of the development of local farming. “As dependence on imports has proved too strong, localization and urbanization of production sites has become a necessity.
“Lack of labour and lockdowns are wreaking havoc on harvesting plans and logistics. Thus berries, asparagus, and other crops are already rotting in the South of Europe. In India, yield is being fed to cattle. On the other hand, in countries where the government has declared a state of emergency (EEU, Vietnam), exports are banned.”
Singapore, for example, has announced new measures to accelerate local food production by transforming car park rooftops in public housing estates into urban farms.
He further believes automation of the food sector is ‘inevitable’ as the supply of labour is disrupted by travel bans due to the pandemic.
“Agriculture is used to relying on people who, now, cannot get visas or cross borders. Even if more local workforce gets involved, farmers can also fall sick,” he said. “And those who do go out in the fields are poorly protected: due to the pandemics, there is a profound lack of dust masks.” As such, the pandemic has proven automation and robotization are absolutely essential, he contends.
“Elimination of the reliance on manual labour is not only a question of decreasing labour costs. It is the question of providing people with vegetables, berries, and greens—products that serve to strengthen our immunity and overall health.”
He further believes that consumers will continue to prefer contactless delivery from the farms and retailers, which will also have to be as close to end consumers as possible.
“We have always been cautious about the origin of products in supermarkets. Now there’s an added concern: how many people have touched them. Thus, consumers’ trust for contact-free delivery directly from farms is growing.”
Because they’re deprived of their usual clients (such as restaurants or retail stores), a lot of farms have moved online to reach end-users on their own.
“That implies the market is undergoing a significant change and that, in quarantine, consumers may find farmers trustworthy, change their buying habits, and never go back to their old ones again,” according to Lyskovsky.
Self-isolated people in cities, meanwhile, are suffering the most as the virus spreads faster than in the suburbs. Vertical farms, located in a residential building or a village, can therefore, he believes, answer to the needs of a single household or a local community and are gaining popularity.
“Customers do not need a farm to be cost-effective; they just need it to ‘work no matter what” or ‘that no one touches my food’.”
Covid has exposed the weaknesses in our food system
UK-based LettUs Grow, the creator of advanced aeroponic technology for indoor farms, and which earlier in 2020 secured £2.3 million in funding to build world-leading indoor growing facilities, agrees COVID-19 has ‘has shone a bright spotlight on wider concerns about the weaknesses within our food system’.
“It may be the wake-up call needed to address wider food security concerns such as those posed by soil loss, a third of the world’s soils are severely degraded due to agriculture, or the impacts of climate change,” India Langley, LettUs Grow’s communications lead, told us.
“Aeroponics has the potential to increase and stablise the amount of food being produced locally by operating year-round, whilst also increasing farm revenue streams,” she said. “It could also provide a steadier supply of work for farm labourers, rather than relying solely on seasonal opportunities. Often, these methods of growing are also light on resources such as water, land and pesticides.”
She believes aeroponics has the potential to significantly disrupt the current fresh produce supply chain while conveying benefits to the growers in the process.
“In temperate climates such as the UK, a global food network is used to keep seasonal produce such as strawberries, tomatoes and salad items on the shelves from January to December. In aeroponic farms, the weather does not affect the produce as it is always a balmy summer's day with perfect growing conditions inside. By situating these farms close to the consumer, you can reduce food miles and strengthen communities' regional food security by reducing reliance on lengthy supply chains.”
But what about the expense?
However, a disadvantage of indoor farming and aeroponics are high energy costs. The Financial Times reported last year, for example, that “despite the excitement, the sector is littered with bankruptcies because of the high costs of initial investment into the facilities as well as expensive running costs, including energy to power the LED lights and ventilation, as well as labour.”
Serge Gander, CEO of CombaGroup, a Swiss agro-tech company that provides innovative farming solutions in mobile aeroponics, responds that the draw of aeroponics lies in its automated and high efficiency process.
For the aeroponics sector to take off and present a viable solution to the current food problems, he said what’s needed is “an intelligent approach to the concept of high investment for higher financial returns, a long-term vision from growers and processors of the benefits of growth and yields for their lands, and commitment from the various stakeholders to reduce imports and carbon footprints by buying locally all year round.”
Also needed, he added, is better ‘understanding and acceptance’. “Many people are still convinced that soilless production cannot produce the same as soil-intensive cultures. This simply isn’t true. The taste, crispness, freshness and purity of our greens defies belief. Top chefs have tasted it and swooned!”
One area where COVID-19 has particularly exposed food insecurity is Africa. More than two-thirds of people in 20 African countries said they would run out of food if they had to stay at home for 14 days, according to a survey by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDCP), which warned there was risk of unrest and violence owing to disrupted supply chains that may constrict food supply and boost prices.
Could aeroponics play a role here? Yes, reckons Gander. “Africa and other countries with limited clean water supplies will benefit most from mobile aeroponics: we use an impressive 97% LESS water than traditional agriculture,” he said. “Mobile aeroponics will also help secure their food chains and improve their food independence by not having to rely on imported produce.”
Mutesi Teopista, communication officer for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rwanda, also believes aeroponics is a viable solution to Africa’s problems.
“With rapid population growth occurring in Africa and with it increased urbanization, Governments need to ensure that they take advantage of as many technologies including aeroponics to ensure that they have a robust system of food security in place,” she said.
However, it would require substantial support from the public and private sectors, she acknowledged.
Aeroponics, hydroponics, aquaponics and other such controlled farming/production systems do have an important role to play in propping up food security of countries in Africa, she observes. But for these technologies to be effective and have a substantive impact on food production, ‘vision and leadership by government to support adoption is required’.
“Providing access to necessary capital to ensure sustained investment to enter this space by farmers and entrepreneurs (the farmers of the future) is key. In terms of adoption of these technologies, we are at the cusp of innovation and we are yet to see any real impact.”