Considered by many as the ‘king of the herbs’ for its flavour, aroma, and versatility in European cuisine, basil is one of the most popular herbs across the bloc.
However, basil has at least one inherent flaw: it is notoriously difficult to cultivate. Basil requires a minimum of five hours of sunshine per day, and is highly sensitive to cold. It also has a characteristically short shelf life, pre-empted by the appearance of blackened and wilted leaves.
Vertical farming start-up Future Crops, together with R&D partner the Israeli Agricultural Research Organization (ARO), have been working on a basil variety that can be cultivated without these restraints.
Natural plant breeding techniques
“Most of the basil varieties today have been developed to grow in the outdoors in open fields as well as green houses,” said Professor Native Dudai from Future Crops’ R&D partner, the Israeli Agricultural Research Organization (ARO).
“Our goal was breeding varieties that would best fit the novel vertical farming paradigm. Our breakthrough in sequencing the basil genome gave us the modern molecular tools for developing cultivars imbued with very specific desired genetic characteristics.”
In particular, the ARO was searching for traits such as resilience to environmental stressors, yield capabilities, as well as flavour and textural properties.
Via natural breeding techniques, Professor Dudai’s team was able to create the ‘perfect’ seed for cultivation in a vertical farm.
Future Crops has finalised negotiations with the ARO Institute to purchase exclusive licencing rights to these seeds for commercialisation worldwide.
‘Beyond organic’ basil
On the vertical farming side of things, Future Crops has developed ‘ideal’ climate conditions for the basil in its primarily solar powered 2,000m² vertical farm, which allows the herb to ‘thrive’ year-round.
Future Crops grows the proprietary basil variety on a ‘unique, nutrient-enriched soil-like substrate’, with fully controlled light, temperature, wind and humidity.
“Plants behave very differently in closed environments versus in an open field,” explained Gary Grinspan, CEO and co-founder of Future Crops. “We are constantly observing and tuning into their growth needs to mimic the outdoor field ambience as much as possible.”
Thanks to these efforts, the start-up says it has managed to almost triple its yield over the last three years. And the basil’s shelf-life is more than two-weeks long under optimum storage conditions.
Another benefit is that the basil is produced without pesticides. “We don’t add any pesticides or chemicals to our products,” Grinspan told FoodNavigator. “This makes us ‘beyond organic’ in the way we produce.”
Routes to market
Future Crops has already started selling its basil to supermarkets in Europe. “Our aim is to become a significant supplier for retail and beyond so that more consumers enjoy our fresh and tasty basil,” said Grinspan.
At most retailers, its products are sold at the same consumer price as other basil varieties.
The start-up sells its products under its EVE brand, where it communicates the advantages of vertical farming, such as being pesticide-free, and that it doesn’t need to be washed. “We also sell under private label to leading retailers,” we were told. “In this case, the retailer can decide how to communicate the advantages of the product on the packaging.”
Future Crops is also targeting food producers, especially makers of pesto.
“We have been able to supply a premium pesto brand with basil that was not appropriate for retail but ideal for use as the base for a condiment,” explained Grinspan. “This proved instrumental in reducing waste while enabling us to provide high-quality product at a reasonable cost, thus using 100% of the crop and contributing to sustainable sourcing and farming."