In the basement of a landmark 27-story tower in Stockholm’s central Kungsholmen district, Owe Pettersson is hoping to sow the seeds of an indoor urban farming revolution.
Pettersson is the chief executive of Plantagon, a new Stockholm-based urban farming venture set to kick off operations in the basement of an office block in the Swedish capital later this month.
“This will be one of the most advanced food factories located in a city that we have today,” says Pettersson, who has spent more than 25 years in the insurance and banking industries.
He is by no means the first enthusiast for indoor farming, which has become increasingly fashionable in recent years. Claims for the practice of growing food in basements or warehouses range from feeding people in desert environments to reversing the negative environmental effects of monoculture farming.
“Nature will repair itself if you give it a chance, and indoor farming gives it that chance,” says Dickson Despommier, author of The Vertical Farm and a vocal proponent for this novel approach to agriculture.
Plantagon’s early promises echo this nascent optimism. Pettersson calls the farm’s approach “agritechture”: the combination of agriculture, technology and architecture hoping to revolutionize how we live and eat.
The term may be new, but the concept isn’t. Indoor farming is made possible by agricultural technologies such as hydroponics (growing plants without soil) and aeroponics (in which plants are grown in air strung over containers). Food can be produced without direct sunlight or soil.
The Swedish startup says it will be more efficient than similar enterprises. While that’s impossible to prove at this stage, in theory the company’s main bases seem covered.
Plantagon plans to grow high-value foods ― mostly salads and herbs ― in a pumice-like substance rather than soil. Water for the plants is measured with scientific precision. It will also dehumidify the air and reuse any excess water to ensure zero waste.
In conventional agriculture, the amount of water required to produce a kilo of food can vary from about 130 liters (34 gallons) for lettuce, to 3,400 liters (900 gallons) for rice. In contrast, Plantagon says it will only need to use one liter per kilo for its crops.
Energy is also a key issue for indoor urban farms, which have to create artificial sunlight. Although advances in the efficiency of LED lights have helped bring down energy consumption in recent years, plants use only about 1 percent of the artificial light produced. This leads to a colossal waste of energy, most of which disappears as heat.
Plantagon says it will capture around 70 percent of this wasted heat in its 6,500-square-foot basement farm, and pipe it into the heating system of the office block above. Oxygen produced by the plants will be sent to office workers via the building’s air conditioners.
“This is the basic way we get interest from real estate developers to rent out their basements or other spaces to us,” says Pettersson.
Indoor urban farms may be proliferating, but the ability to produce affordable food, at scale, and in a manner that is economically viable escapes many in this nascent industry. Plantagon hopes to reverse this trend and turn a profit.
The firm’s recent crowdfunding campaign raised 4.4 million Swedish krona ($559,000) that will help its ambition to install up to nine more urban farms across Stockholm over the next three years. The inaugural farm, which cost about $863,000, was backed by a group of private investors.
Plantagon also has a charitable arm, which owns 10 percent of the business and commits to invest in innovative for-profit companies that seek to address societal challenges. People can invest in “generation shares” in the charity that cannot be cashed for seven generations.
The firm’s confidence that it can be profitable rests in part on reducing expenses, with lower costs for energy and water, and savings on rent. Plantagon has negotiated a three-year, zero-rent deal in exchange for the heating and clean air that its farm provides to the building.
“Most [indoor farming] projects are difficult to make economically viable because they tend to focus only on the technology and the growing. You also need to find a business model that works,” says Pettersson.
Keeping operations hyper-local will help meet that requirement, the startup says. It intends to set up a retail pop-up stall in the foyer of its host building, and sell produce to a local supermarket and nearby restaurants. Its virtually non-existent supply line will keep transport costs to a minimum, while its “ready-to-sell” distribution model will eliminate the need for expensive and wasteful packaging.
Plantagon says its business model answers many of urban farming’s critics, who argue that the approach is energy-intensive and expensive.
Some will never be convinced. For Stan Cox, a U.S. writer and plant breeder, converting sunlight directly or indirectly (via fossil fuels) into electricity to help grow plants is “about as wasteful as a system can be.” Plantagon uses solar energy, but it’s still no replacement for natural sunlight, hardened critics like Cox argue.
As for the venture’s business model, even Pettersson admits that all the pieces of the puzzle have to be in place to stand any chance of success. That limits the model’s scalability, he concedes. “It’s a completely new supply chain model that you need for each project [so] we won’t do these projects just anywhere.”
Nor, as some hope, will hydroponics meet the world’s nutritional needs. While Plantagon has a guarantee from the local supermarket not to sell its products above market rates, thus tackling questions of affordability, its nutritional scope is limited. People cannot live on microgreens alone.
Even if they could, production volumes would fall well short. Expanding the scope of high-tech ventures like Plantagon’s to roof gardens, allotments and other more conventional forms of urban farming would still see cities struggling to feed themselves. As a recent paper published in the Journal of Social Change concludes, agriculture in cities represents a “secondary source of food” at best.
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