Grab a rosemary or basil plant from a vending machine as if it were a can of coke or a candy bar. Wageningen masters’ students Nikolaos Alfieris and Orestis Spirou made it to the 4TU Impact Challenge with their FarmVent. The 4TU Impact Challenge is an innovation contest of the four technical universities in the Netherlands, held on 19 November. Wageningen team ReShore is also still competing.
Vertical farming is not new. After all, if producers are keen to grow as many plants per square metre as possible, they will have to go vertical. There are already nurseries where plants are grown in ‘apartments’ with multiple ‘floors’. However, vertical farming in the supermarket is new, say inventors Nikolaos Alfieris (26) en Orestis Spirou (28). Both are masters’ students of Biosystems Engineering in Wageningen. Their concept: breeding and harvesting live in the shop in a smart greenhouse is much more sustainable. The two-metre-high machine offers the customer a selection of 500 dew-fresh herbs, displayed over 4 shelves of one square metre each. It takes only a few pushes of a button to select and harvest your favourite herb on the spot.
This has the advantage that basil, mint, thyme and sage no longer need to be transported (internationally) from the nursery to a distribution centre and then on to the consumer. Moreover, the breeding process is exceptionally efficient. It requires 90 per cent less water, and the protected environment reduces the use of pesticides and fertilisers by 75 per cent. ‘There is also less waste: the customer only harvests if the product is sold. Where herbs quickly perish in the normal vegetable section, in the FarmVent they continue to grow, and therefore remain fresh for much longer’, says Nikolaos.
In addition to the aspect of sustainability, the FarmVent team, which includes students from Athens and Utrecht University, wants to bring food production closer to the consumer. ‘Customers see the plant growing under their very eyes. This provides transparency and inspires confidence’, according to Nikolaos. But, doesn’t the “regular” organic plant have the same effect in a distinguishing consumer? ‘Indeed, it does. But this product is not always readily available. Take, for instance, places where it is cold and dark during large parts of the year. But also: the world population is growing rapidly, and there is simply not enough land to feed everyone. Thus, we must find creative solutions.’
The FarmVent students realise that fresh herbs will not feed millions of people. Nikolaos: ‘But, it is a step in that direction. We must start somewhere, and herbs are the easiest to start with: they are sold as a plant and are nice to look at. This is important, the customer must be willing to buy!’ More products will grow in the FarmVent in the future, he expects. Leafy greens and strawberries, for example. ‘Plants that don’t take long to grow before the customer can harvest them.’
In addition to the sustainability aspect, team FarmVent also strives to keep the current production market intact. ‘The vending machine is an extra sales outlet for existing breeders, we only provide the technology: cameras and sensors that continuously monitor the greenhouse environment. This data is used to optimise the growth process automatically.’ The team is already discussing with growers and supermarkets. The first customers are expected to buy their herbs from a vending machine in 2021. Nikolaos: ‘We will start with a pilot in the Netherlands, and then optimise the process. Currently, for example, we still need quite some energy for the LED growth lamps. We hope to link this to the store lighting.’
Should FarmVent win the 4TU Impact Challenge on 19 November, they will join the Dutch trade mission at the Dubai World Expo (currently postponed due to the corona pandemic). Nikolaos: ‘That would be amazing. Dubai has an enormous food production issue due to its geographical location in the desert, so it is precisely there where innovations such as ours are welcome.’
Dutch 4TU Impact Challenge
With the Dutch 4TU Impact Challenge, the four technical universities in the Netherlands – Delft, Twente, Eindhoven and Wageningen – aim to stimulate students to combine innovative ideas with entrepreneurship. After four regional preliminaries, the finals are held on Thursday 19 November. There, the last 8 remaining teams (two per university) will pitch their idea for a jury of five experts. The winner will join the Dutch trade mission at the Dubai World Expo (currently postponed due to the corona pandemic). There is also an audience prize of 1500 euros. Wageningen University & Research is represented by FarmVent and the ReShore team. The latter developed a ‘living’ wave breaker that protects both the coast and marine life. The event can be followed online on the website: https://4tuimpactchallenge.nl/.