Self-sufficient cities? Why this may soon be more than just a pipe dream
When buying groceries, we often check where the food has been imported from. But what if this were no longer necessary because everything was grown locally?
The brothers Erez and Guy Galonska have founded the Berlin-based company Infarm together with Osnat Michaeli. Since 2013 they have been working to develop a ‘vertical farming’ system that makes it possible to grow crops in the heart of the city. How exactly does it work? As part of the ‘Spaces full of life’ series, we caught up with Erez Galonska and Osnat Michaeli in their backyard office in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg to talk about their work and motivations, and to get a brief glimpse into the future...
Erez Galonska and Osnat Michaeli: what exactly is Infarm?
Erez Galonska: At Infarm, we grow crops in the city, for the city, using modern farming methods. Over the last three years, we have developed a modular vertical greenhouse system. The modules can be connected to one another like Lego to make the growing systems bigger or smaller, depending on the requirements. What’s more, our indoor gardens can be installed almost anywhere, whether in a loft, a supermarket or a restaurant. The farms are connected through a smart grid, i.e. an intelligent electricity supply network, and can be controlled remotely.
Osnat Michaeli: The growing cabinets feature a controllable system which can be used to imitate all kinds of ecosystems. This means that we can create the perfect conditions for every plant. 365 days a year, and no matter what the climate. Our long-term vision is to no longer have to import plant-based foodstuffs, as we can grow them right here. We would love to see a city become self-sufficient one day, with lots of indoor farms based on our model.
It's becoming increasingly important to them to know where their food comes from and that it has been produced under sustainable conditions.
Cities are becoming even more important as places to live...
Erez Galonska: Yes, the world population is growing. It is estimated that 70 percent of people will live in cities by the year 2050. The way in which we currently grow and sell food not only requires unimaginable amounts of energy, it also generates lots of waste. Thirty percent of food doesn’t even make it onto the plate. We are therefore trying an alternative system of supply.
Do you think that people will also be able to grow food inside their homes in future?
Osnat Michaeli: Our very first indoor farm was actually created in our living room. I remember it well: it was snowing outside in February, but fresh vegetables were growing in our living room. Growing your own food makes you feel incredibly independent. But it’s also hard work and requires a lot of time – time that most of us don’t have, unfortunately. I don’t believe that everyone will make the effort, but food production will definitely be guided more by individual demand in future. Consumer habits have changed. People are demanding more transparency and better quality from manufacturers and producers. It's becoming increasingly important to them to know where their food comes from and that it has been produced under sustainable conditions – in other words, grown locally without the use of pesticides.
So what came after the experiments in your living room?
Erez Galonska: See that mobile home behind me?
It looks a bit like the one from Breaking Bad.
Erez Galonska: Three and a half years ago, we filled this mobile home with our modules and parked it in Berlin’s Prinzessinnengarten in order to show people what vertical farming is. What it means to grow something in artificial conditions. People were really curious. Since then, Infarm has been on a roller coaster ride.
What do you say to people who think your greenhouse systems look a little too artificial and futuristic?
Osnat Michaeli: That’s a good question. We spend a lot of time thinking about what is natural and what is artificial. Ultimately, anything made by people is artificial. Our aim is to use natural resources in an intelligent way and to keep learning from nature. The discussions usually stop as soon as we offer the chance to try out our products. If you eat something that has just been freshly picked, you suddenly realise that most things we consume are just an echo of the original.
You have installed a microgarden at the 25hours Hotel in Berlin, and two of your growing cabinets are set up in wholesale markets in Berlin and Antwerp. Now your herb gardens are about to hit German supermarkets, too.
Erez Galonska: It’s going to be exciting, because this is another new area for us. Shoppers in the supermarkets will find our growing cabinets next to the fresh vegetables, like an in-store farm. We can monitor the farm remotely through the cloud and thereby regulate the recipe, i.e. the water, the nutritional values, the pH value, the temperature and the oxygen level. This allows us to improve the growth, the taste and the structure of the plants. It takes around four to eight weeks until the first harvest. After that, the herbs and lettuce keep regrowing. Our ‘farmers’ come along once or twice a week to pick the crops, and the produce is then sold to customers.
Where else do you grow your plants?
Erez Galonska: We now have several locations, including restaurants and supermarkets. In the case of a restaurant, we’ll coordinate everything closely with the chef, look for new plant species, and create new recipes for the plants, for instance. Here in Kreuzberg, we only grow for the neighbourhood – and for ourselves, of course! (laughs) Berlin is expected to have 20 new growing sites by the end of the year, plus a further hundred next year.
Our aim is to use natural resources in an intelligent way and to keep learning from nature.
What are the requirements for setting up a growing site?
Osnat Michaeli: Our modules can be integrated in every conceivable location: supermarkets, distribution centres, restaurants, schools, hospitals and anywhere that food is prepared or served. Because our systems offer reliable quality at stable prices, we are an attractive partner for many companies. At the same time, we are constantly expanding via our partners and reaching many end-consumers directly.
What can and can’t you grow in your indoor gardens?
Erez Galonska: We’re currently focusing on herbs and lettuce. But you could actually grow anything. It ultimately comes down to energy consumption. In theory, it would be possible to replace a small supermarket with four or five of our greenhouses. We’ll be adding more and more plant varieties as the technology becomes more advanced over time.
How has your company changed since its beginnings?
Osnat Michaeli: We have evolved from three people (all self-taught) into a professional team of 40. But our vision has remained the same. At first, our friends thought we’d gone crazy. They thought that maybe we were just working on an art project or something. These days, I get the impression that everyone I meet understands our idea pretty quickly. It can easily be compared with other major evolutions throughout history. No one thought computers would take off, either!
You’ve been based in the same building since the company was born. Have the premises changed in line with your development?
Osnat Michaeli: Actually, we’ll soon be moving part of the company into an old factory building in Spandau, Berlin. It contains lofts with high ceilings and a floor area of 2,000 square meters. It will serve as a kind of headquarters and logistics centre for urban farming.
Erez Galonska: But it's important to us to leave the site here in Kreuzberg as it is. After all, this is where the farm-to-table experience first began. People came here and were transported into the future. We want to continue being able to organise events here for those who are interested in what we do.
We’re currently focusing on herbs and lettuce. But you could actually grow anything.
A glimpse into the future: how will we be eating in 10 years' time?
Osnat Michaeli: I believe that people will really have a say in what is grown. We’ll have a much greater influence over what we eat and when; it will be governed less by industry. Personalised cultivation, so to speak.
Osnat Michaeli and Erez Galonska, thank you very much for talking to us about your vision for urban agriculture and your vertical farming system.
We visited INFARM for our ‘Spaces full of life’ series, in which we introduce inspiring working and living spaces and the people behind them. We hope you enjoyed this article.
You can read more about Infarm at their Website Infarm