From corner kitchens to sandbars on the planet Mars, will we soon be growing plants in a tech-controlled artificial environment? Some startups believe this, but are still trying to find an economic model that will make them viable on a large scale.
“Within 5 to 10 years, most homes will be equipped with indoor gardens,” small cabinets where plants grow in a completely controlled environment, Thibault Pradier, the founder of the startup, told VivaTech in Paris this week. up La Granette.
Once the consumer is equipped with a vegetable garden, the company plans to provide the dressing in the form of a coconut fiber capsule that contains the seed with the desired plant, at an estimated cost of 1.5 euros.
Purchasing seeds gives you access to an app that shows you how to properly set up your indoor garden – nutrient dosage, humidity, lighting… – and allows you to monitor the growth of the plant.
Evidence that the market is revitalized is that home appliance maker LG is “already making indoor gardens with great success in South Korea, and Miele has just launched production in Germany in particular,” Mr. Pradier points out.
For him, this farming in a fully controlled environment is indeed part of the equation for feeding the planet at an acceptable environmental cost.
Sure, “an indoor vegetable garden would consume the equivalent of a refrigerator,” but his lettuce’s carbon footprint would be much better “because it wouldn’t need to be transported and delivered,” he says.
Interstellar Lab founder Barbara Belvisi, who wants to grow plants in the harshest conditions, is on the same page.
“Conventional farming alone cannot feed 9 billion people,” she says.
“A closed and controlled environment allows energy consumption to be optimized” and may also allow “relocation of agriculture” by avoiding imports from distant countries of products that cannot be grown locally.
Interstellar Lab, which has raised €7 million and hired about 30 people, plans to install about 20 of its 55-square-meter “biopods” by the end of 2023, where plants grow in nutrient mist in aeroponics.
Completely immune to the environment, these modules anticipate Interstellar Lab’s true ambitions on Earth: culture in space – such as on a space station – or on another planet.
“At the moment, biopods are intended for pharmaceutical and cosmetic laboratories or any other industry that is looking for very specific plants with high added value,” explains Barbara Belvisi.
“It won’t necessarily be food at first, except for very specific plants like vanilla.”
A typical example for her is vetiver, a root used in perfumery that grows very well, without destroying the soil, in aeroponics.
Because the path to the commercial viability of closed farming is a long one, as evidenced by Agricool’s filing for bankruptcy.
A promising French start-up that raised €35 million in 2018 wanted to grow salads or strawberries in computer-equipped city containers as close to the consumer as possible.
Despite the enthusiasm for her concept, she failed to find a viable economic model, explains her co-founder Guillaume Fourdinier.
“The consumer will agree to pay about 20% more” for this type of local product, “but this is not enough for R&D spending to be profitable, and it remains above the prices of traditional competitors,” he regrets.
Agricool was able to make a profit on some plants, such as aromatic herbs, but not on strawberries or lettuce, which had higher production costs.
His diagnosis matches that of Barbara Belvisi: in the short term, this type of crop may only be viable for high value-added products.
But “in the long term, things will change with climate change,” and urban dome or container farms may prevail if temperatures prevent outdoor crops from growing, especially in southern countries.
“To deal with the huge challenges ahead of us in the food space, we will have to continue to test and invest heavily in the transformation of traditional farms in parallel,” he says.