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New frontiers in urban farming

Vegetables, fruits, fish and chicken raised indoors – often in city centers – are appearing on grocery store shelves in Europe, Japan and the United States. What drives these urban farming pioneers? A shared passion to ensure that, despite population growth and climate change, farmers can keep pace with a hungry world’s demand for natural, healthy food.

Their solutions couldn’t come at a better time. 

In 2023, experts predict that food insecurity will be double its 2020 level. The global hunger and malnutrition crisis is not improving – it’s worsening exponentially.

The World Food Programme predicts, “345.2 million people [are] projected to be food insecure in 2023 – more than double the number in 2020. More than 900,000 people worldwide are fighting to survive in famine-like conditions.This is ten times more than five years ago, an alarmingly rapid increase. An immediate response is needed.”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, residents of many developed countries found themselves worrying for the first time about whether they could find the food they needed, as global supply chain disruptions and panic buying emptied the shelves in many food stores. The pandemic made one reality abundantly clear:  People in urban areas are extremely susceptible to food insecurity, given their distance from sources for fresh produce and farm goods.

In response, innovative urban farming startups are springing up worldwide. Among them: Freight Farms, FuturaGaïa and PlantX, which are taking urban farming and indoor farming to new heights.

Vertical farming operations can yield more than 100 times the produce per acre of traditional farming methods. Estimates vary but, conservatively, the systems use 90% less water. Urban farming companies offer their growing units in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, so crops can grow in any location and climate year-round.

Freight Farms and PlantX are the longest established of the three, with Freight Farms shipping its first farm-in-a-shipping-container system in 2014. FuturaGaïa started operations mid-COVID, and was funded in 2019.

While urban and vertical farming have been around for decades, these companies’ solutions are cutting-edge, ultra-connected, self-learning systems designed and supported in virtual reality. While this may all sound futuristic, it’s not.

“It’s not an ‘if and when’ – it’s now,” says Derek Baker, senior engineer at Freight Farms. “So, we’re not talking about the ‘future of food.’ It needs to be now.”

Europe-based FuturaGaïa’s scalable vertical farms

The co-founder and CEO of Europe-based FuturaGaïa, Pascal Thomas, says the company turned its mid-COVID launch into an advantage.

FuturaGaïa is mentored by the  Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE Lab, which provides access to the company’s design, simulation and manufacturing solutions on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform on the cloud. “Using digital tools, we continued our work throughout the first, second and third lockdowns,” Thomas said. ”We developed a virtual twin that all project members can access simultaneously. This speeds time to market, and also captures all the discussions, ideas and concerns as data for future use.”

FuturaGaïa is a member of the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab.

FuturaGaïa deepens customer support using virtual reality solutions as well. “We will be able to virtually walk through our customers’ plants to support them. For example, we can inspect sensors, temperatures and so on,” Thomas said.

The company’s vertical farming solution is a first-of-a-kind tubular system that rotates horizontally at a precise speed. The stackable, remote-controlled automated farm units provide everything from farm management to inputs for farm production, including seed, water, light, airflow and biostimulation, which replaces fertilizers, plus ongoing support. Their service includes development of “recipes” for growing various crops. For example, a specialized lettuce recipe will provide the perfect quantity of inputs to optimize nutrition, flavor and yield for that plant.

FuturaGaïa recently received a second round of funding to scale up its business. Clients span many industries, including food, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals – any business that needs fresh, clean produce for their products.

Thomas is quick to point out that the company’s solutions complement, not replace, traditional farming. In fact, he grew up on a farm.

“My father was an engineer as well as an apple farmer,” Thomas said. “I once asked him why he was so passionate about his farm. He lived through World War II and its massive destruction, and through the post-World War II food crisis that impacted his home country of France and many others. This left a deep and lasting impression.”

Remembering this suffering, Thomas’ father instilled in him: “You must feed the people. Whatever it costs, you need to feed them.”

Today, FuturaGaïa is helping to meet that imperative, and Thomas is proud of his company’s contribution to staving off world hunger. “We need solutions to feed people, and must do so in planet-friendly ways,” he says. “It’s a matter of life or death.”

In another planet-friendly move, the company uses abandoned land, pesticides and warehouses to house its farms. Using this approach, FuturaGaïa is reclaiming wasted land and spaces.

Perhaps most importantly, the results are delicious. “I remember being in Montreal and eating a strawberry grown inside by my daughter,” Thomas said. “It was vibrant red and so tasty.” And so, the Thomas family adds another generation of farmers to its heritage.

US-based Freight Farms aims to make farming possible anywhere, by anyone

Derek Baker, senior engineer at Boston-based Freight Farms, shares the passion for innovations to provide local food through urban agriculture.

He also grew up on a farm, with a garden just for feeding the family. His grandparents were traditional farmers who grew beefalo (a hybrid of beef and buffalo meat).

“Everyone should have access to fresh, healthy food like that,” Baker says, calling it a human right.

Freight Farms designs its urban farming units to empower anyone anywhere to become a commercial farmer. Its clients range from individuals who want to become commercial farmers to partnerships with local governments, including Puerto Rico.

The company upcycles abandoned freight containers. Originally designed to move from ocean freightliners, to train freight cars and freight trucks, Freight Farms gives them new life as containers for self-contained hydroponic, vertical gardens. Their units’ small footprint means they can go almost anywhere, activating an unproductive space – like alleyways in urban areas.

However, it’s not the form factor of the garden that makes it a viable solution for novices and experts alike.

“It’s the infrastructure around that system – the technology allows people to incorporate farming into their current lifestyles,” Baker says.

Like FuturaGaïa, Freight Farms develops and supports its solution in the virtual world, working with SOLIDWORKS on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform.

“I cannot imagine how our development process would work without these tools,” he said. “Timelines would be increased by 10 times, if not more. They are the driving force behind our product development. The suite enables engineers to operate beyond their individual capabilities end-to-end.”

Freight Farms now boasts the largyest network of connected farmers, using the company’s proprietary farmhand software to support farmers through the life of their “grow.”

Farmers can access and control their farm from their smartphones to adjust inputs, and to collaborate with Freight Farms and their fellow farmers. An online community connects farmers to share knowledge, recipes for various crops and more. An online farmhand academy provides a curriculum for anyone and access to engineers on call for their farmers.

“I’m so proud to be part of a company that is focused on providing tools so our customers can drive change for global nutrition,” Baker said. “We are only successful if our farmers are successful. “We will literally send someone to a customer’s farm if they want or need support.”

Japan-based PLANTX designs sealed, hyper-automated urban farming solutions

On the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, a group of experienced engineers has created Tokyo-based PLANTX to combat future food insecurity without overburdening current agricultural spaces.

PLANTX’s Culture Machine features precise control to create an optimum environment for stable cultivation. Photo courtesy PLANTX.

“Climate change and extreme weather conditions are making it even tougher to produce the food needed to feed the ever-growing population,” said Kosuke Yamada, president and CEO of PLANTX. “Our plant factories deliver a sustainable solution that can help meet the challenges and expectations surrounding global food insecurity.”

PLANTX produces “culture machines” – their approach to a hydroponic closed-environment farm factory. They developed a plant growth management system that includes more than 20 different sensors for continuously measuring light, temperature, electricity usage and carbon dioxide concentration. This gives them extreme precision when controlling environments.

Like its peers in the US and Europe, PLANTX relies on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform’s advanced modeling and simulation capabilities to further improve the temperature, water flow, and air flow of its culture machines in a digital environment.

Its sealed farms are built vertically, with each layer acclimated to a specific type of produce. Each layer can be customized with unique airflows, light, water and nutrients optimal for growth.

PLANTX operates its own farm in Tokyo, a popular retail location that sells its fresh produce to individuals and restaurants. The founders’ primary goal, however, is to provide farms to companies that want to invest in their own culture machines. They also build smaller-scale culture machines for researchers.

Each of the three companies has developed its own approach to urban and vertical gardening. They share many commonalities (hydroponics, high-tech virtual and 3D development tools and product data management, as well as client support).

Their clients differ, but all are focused on encouraging commercial farms that can operate anywhere, at any scale. They differ in their structures, their growing medium and how they fertilize or stimulate growth.

No matter the approach, all are making progress toward alleviating food insecurity in uncertain times. But they’re not satisfied to only feed people on Earth: All three companies have worked with NASA or Japan’s Space Foodsphere program, developing capabilities to grow food in space, on the Moon, underwater and more.

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