From the kitchen to the planet Mars, indoor farming is still finding its way

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Paris (AFP) – From a corner kitchen to the sandy stretches of the planet Mars, will we soon be growing plants in artificial environments controlled by technology? Some startups believe this, but they are still groping to find the economic model that will make them viable on a large scale.

“Within 5 to 10 years, most homes will be equipped with indoor vegetable gardens”, small closets where plants grow in a fully controlled environment, said this week at the VivaTech fair in Paris Thibaut Pradier, the founder of start.- until ” La Grangette”.

As soon as the consumer is equipped with a vegetable garden, this company intends to provide him with refills in the form of a coconut fiber capsule, which contains a seed with the desired plant, for a target price of 1.5 euros.

The purchase of the seed gives access to an application that indicates how to properly assemble the indoor garden – dosage of nutrients, humidity, light… – and allows you to monitor the plant’s growth.

Proof that the market is hot, home appliance maker LG “already produces indoor gardens with great success in South Korea and Miele has just launched in Germany in particular”, says Mr. Pradier.

For him, this agriculture in a totally controlled environment is in fact part of the equation to be able to feed the planet at an acceptable environmental cost.

Certainly “the indoor garden will consume the equivalent of a refrigerator”, but the carbon footprint of your salad will be much better “because it won’t have to be transported and delivered”, he says.

Interstellar Lab founder Barbara Belvisi, who wants to grow plants in the harshest environments, is on the same page.

“Traditional agriculture alone will not be able to feed 9 billion human beings,” she says.

“A closed and controlled environment makes it possible to optimize energy consumption” and can also “relocate agriculture”, avoiding the importation of products from distant countries that cannot be grown locally.

Interstellar Lab, which has raised 7 million euros and employs around 30 people, plans to deliver around 20 of its “Biopods” by the end of 2023, 55 square meters of cultivation “domes”, where plants grow in a fog of nutrients in aeroponics.

These modules, completely impervious to their environment, foreshadow the Interstellar Lab’s true ambition on Earth: culture in space – on a space station, for example – or on another planet.

“Keep testing”

For now, Biopods are intended for pharmaceutical and cosmetic laboratories or any other industry that seeks very specific plants with high added value, explains Barbara Belvisi.

“At first it won’t necessarily be for food, except for very specific plants like vanilla.”

The typical example for her is vetiver, a root used in perfumery that grows very well, without destroying the soil, in aeroponics.

An indoor vegetable garden system developed by start-up “La Grangette” presented at VivaTech fair, June 17, 2022 in Paris Eric Piermont AFP

Because for indoor farming, the road to commercial viability is long, as evidenced by Agricool’s bankruptcy filing.

The promising French start-up, which had raised 35 million euros in 2018, wanted to grow salads or strawberries in urban containers equipped with computers, as close to the consumer as possible.

Despite the enthusiasm for its concept, it was unable to find a viable economic model, explains its co-founder Guillaume Fourdinier.

“Consumers will agree to pay about 20% more” for this type of local product, “but this is not enough to monetize R&D costs and remains above the prices of traditional competitors”, he laments.

Agricool had managed to monetize some plants, such as herbs, but had no success with strawberries or lettuce, whose production costs were higher.

Her diagnosis agrees with Barbara Belvisi’s: in the short term, this type of culture can only be viable for products with high added value.

But “in the long term, everything will change with climate change” and urban farms, in domes or containers, could prevail if temperatures prevent outdoor cultivation, particularly in southern countries.

“To face the great challenges that await us in food, we will have to continue testing and investing massively in parallel in the transformation of traditional farms”, he maintains.

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