From 12 to 18 November 2023 in Hanover – Part of Agritechnica 2023 – Worldwide B2B meeting place – Interview with DLG Division Manager Marcus Vagt
How can we use innovative production systems to supply the growing world population with healthy, nutritious and sustainably produced food? The “Inhouse Farming – Feed & Food Show” is intended to provide answers to this question. The B2B platform organised by the DLG (German Agricultural Society) will take place from 12 to 18 November parallel to Agritechnica in Hanover. Marcus Vagt, DLG Division Manager for Energy, Inhouse Farming and New Foods, explains the concept of the new B2B platform.
Mr Vagt, according to the United Nations forecast, the number of urban dwellers will increase by one billion to 5.2 billion people by 2030 …
Around 60 percent of the world’s population will then live in cities. A large proportion of these people are unlikely to have access to regionally produced, fresh food. The megatrend of urbanisation poses complex challenges to current agricultural systems. Therefore, solutions are needed on how cities themselves can contribute more to supplying them with food. This is a topic that we will specifically address at this year’s Agritechnica as part of the “Inhouse Farming – Feed & Food Show”.
Many experts see the decoupling of food production from soil and external climate influences as a lever for ensuring an adequate supply of food for the urban population in the future. An assessment you share?
It makes sense to move part of the agricultural production to the cities and to grow crops where they will be consumed. However, the land in the metropolises is valuable and the roof surfaces are already largely occupied by photovoltaics and building technology, so that no sustainable agriculture can be practised on them on the scale that is the case today in fields and arable land. In cities, cultivation areas will therefore expand more in height than in area in the future.
… that means, in an urban environment, cultivation is climbing upwards?
The key word here is vertical farming, which is the concept of growing food on several floors. The crops are grown under controlled environmental conditions. This is made possible by so-called Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technologies, as presented at the “Inhouse Farming – Feed & Food Show”.
Initial attempts to grow plants in shelf systems date back to the 1960s. However, it wasn’t until 1999 that Prof. Dickson Despommier from Columbia University aroused public interest with his vision of vertical agriculture. What is behind this concept?
With vertical farming, mainly fruits, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms and algae can be grown all year round on multi-layered levels, irrespective of the regional climate and seasons – and with consistent quality. So we have a closed cycle from the outside world, and therefore there is no need for crop protection products.
In order to become independent of the weather and the season with this kind of self-contained “greenhouse” on several floors, innovative technologies need to be integrated …
Professional LED plant lighting systems and air conditioning systems that can be used to control the temperature and humidity play an important role here. The roots of the plants usually do not grow in the soil, but in hydroponic systems through which water enriched with nutrients flows. The task is to coordinate the technical systems in such a way that each individual plant finds its optimal growing conditions.
In a closed system like this, water consumption can be reduced by up to 95 percent compared to field cultivation …
… and I see another advantage, because vertical farming not only creates new growing space in an urban environment, it also shortens transport routes and refrigeration chains to consumers, leaving a low carbon footprint.
The complex monitoring and control systems associated with inhouse farming concepts are also likely to be of interest to trade visitors to the fair …
In particular, IoT sensors for smart irrigation, lighting and climate adaptation are an exciting topic. But also cultivation logistics systems for sowing, harvesting and finally cleaning the planting containers can be automated. The technology providers will have a wide range of solutions ready in Hanover. Users can start with a few key components and scale their automation as they grow – all the way to remote monitoring.
What are the perspectives for inhouse farming? Will it make a significant contribution to the food supply in the coming years?
Vertical and indoor farming will usefully supplement the supply of healthy and vitamin-rich food for the foreseeable future, but we still need outdoor production and greenhouses. The strengths of closed agricultural systems mainly come into play where conventional farming methods reach their limits.
Consequently, experts see great development potential in climatically disadvantaged regions …
Yes, for example in regions where traditional farming is not practical due to poor soil quality and a lack of water, or in areas with low temperatures where conventional farming is only possible to a limited extent. In this respect, it is not surprising that the world’s largest hydroponic farm is located an hour’s drive from Dubai, in the middle of the desert.
Most indoor farms currently grow microgreens – seedlings of fresh vegetables or lettuces that are harvested and eaten a few weeks after sowing. What opportunities do the new production methods offer for protein-rich crops?
These are precisely the foods that are important for combating world hunger. This calls for an interplay between science and practice. Expanding the product diversity of closed agricultural systems is therefore a central task that is currently being addressed by various activities in the field of applied research.
What exactly is science concerned with?
One of the ambitious Fraunhofer projects is “FutureProteins”, which focuses on four closed cultivation systems: Vertical farming for plants, insect farming for insects, bioreactors for fungi and photo-bioreactors for algae – all technologies that we will also be presenting in Hanover in November. Alternative protein sources not only include potatoes, wheat grass, alfalfa, but also insects, filamentous fungi and microalgae. They all contain a high-quality amino acid profile as well as good processing properties, which also make them interesting for the food industry. Another important aspect of “FutureProteins” is the use of energy, waste and waste-water flows to create cost-efficient, resource-saving closed-loop systems.
You’ve already mentioned it: The water savings are enormous, but so are the energy costs. Consequently, energy efficiency is crucial for the economic viability of vertical farming …
This is a challenge that is addressed by the exhibitors at the “Inhouse Farming – Feed & Food Show”. For example, with energy-saving, long-lasting LEDs that emit precisely the light frequencies that plants need for photosynthesis. In addition to lighting and irrigation, air-conditioning technology also plays a decisive role. Intelligent solutions that use waste heat and increase energy efficiency can be found on the trade fair grounds.
In other words, decentralised energy and its efficient generation are also an important topic at the “Inhouse Farming – Feed & Food Show”?
Yes, more renewable energy sources like solar and biogas are needed for heat and power generation in order to run the closed cultivation systems almost CO2-neutral and emission-free. Agricultural businesses that produce their own electricity with photovoltaic systems on the roof and combined heat and power plants have a clear advantage here. For the first time, Agritechnica will therefore dedicate a separate section to the topic of “Renewable Energy”.
How does the new B2B platform position itself thematically at the interface to Agritechnica?
It complements the world’s leading trade fair and its guiding theme “Green Productivity” with new ideas from Inhouse Farming and Controlled Environment Agriculture. Visitors to the “Inhouse Farming – Feed & Food Show” will benefit in many ways from Agritechnica, which is taking place at the same time. This is because almost all the market leaders in agricultural technology and decision-makers in modern crop farming will be there. In Hanover, we’ll present the solutions for the future of crop production in all its aspects.
Are the solutions shown an option for farms?
At present, most seasonal agricultural products can still be produced much more cost-effectively in a conventional greenhouse or in the field. However, we need farmers who are interested in the closed cropping systems and want to turn vertical farming or insect farming into profitable business models. They must be involved in the further development and adaptation of technologies. A major hurdle along the way are the investment costs.
The developments are partly driven by innovative start-ups. An aspect that you will pick up on in Hanover?
Numerous start-ups want to contribute to improving the food system with their solutions. We need intensive exchange with these young companies for a successful transformation of the agricultural and food sector. Our new platform offers an optimal podium for intensifying business relations between investors and start-ups and for drawing attention to innovations. For the first time, we are organising the “DLG Impulse Pitches: Inhouse Farming, Feed & Food” as part of the trade fair. With this separate award for products and concepts, we focus on the potential for innovations as well as new and further development of the production and value chain of inhouse farming, as well as alternative feed and food productions that have maturity and relevance in practice.
Where do you still see obstacles and the greatest need for research?
Even if the new cultivation methods can’t replace classical agriculture: Closed agricultural systems offer ideas and solutions for the urgent issues of the present that can’t be put off. The farmer of the future must be able to both produce in the open and use the new production systems. The task of science is to close the gaps that still exist in implementation. The development of energy-efficient technologies is an important field of research. And last but not least, it is also important to find a new variety of plants for inhouse farming.
For additional information: www.inhouse-farming.com