Vertical farms have had successes producing fresh greens and herbs, tomatoes and strawberries—all necessary and delicious crops but not the most calorie-dense. That honor falls to cereals and grains, which generally take up more space and spread out over amber-tinted fields. But those amber waves of grain could soon take up residence indoors, with the first successfully grown indoor wheat.
Infarm, a Germany-based vertical farming company, announced its harvest in November. Spokesperson Pádraic Flood credits Infarm’s success with its focus on optimizing the growth environment and crop cycle time.
The experiment showcases what’s possible not just for growers looking to move their cereal crop indoors, but for global food security in general. Growing these staple crops indoors, in regions previously unable to support them, could benefit millions of people.
However, there are challenges when shifting from produce to grain.
For one, as grains have longer growth cycles, it’s harder to justify growing them inside, where they take up valuable real estate. Traditional row crops, such as lettuce and tomatoes, have faster growing cycles and can be harvested at significantly higher rates in vertical farms versus traditional farms.
Leafy greens, for example, can be produced in vertical farms at 35 times the capacity as on soil-based farms, according to Agritecture, a technology firm focused on climate-smart agriculture, particularly controlled-environment agriculture. Initial research claims traditional farming can produce about 40 pounds of lettuce per 100 square feet, compared to 1,500 pounds in the same amount of space in a vertical farm.
Because quicker growth cycles allow vertical farmers to produce a greater yield, slower cycles—such as those of wheat and other cereals—could dampen a farm’s ability to gain positive returns on its investment in a particular crop.
Yet, according to Flood, the first trials of Infarm’s indoor-grown wheat were enormously encouraging. “The first trials demonstrated exceptional results,” Flood said in an email. “At scale, this is the equivalent of 117 tonnes per hectare [52.2 US tons per acre] per year, 26 times that of the average open-field farming yields.”
And these current field-grown averages are heavily dependent on the climate, which is becoming increasingly volatile. Growing food indoors does simplify things, such as weather and pathogen distribution.
Temasek, a Singapore-based company, has successfully harvested rice indoors. The rice it has produced is semi-dwarf, allowing it to grow at a faster rate than a full-size variety. It also uses 70% less water than its soil-based counterpart would require.
However, the current cost of energy makes farming grain indoors especially risky, especially as these crops have lower price points than other typical indoor-farmed crops when they get to market.
It’s a tradeoff, says Frederick Smith, a regenerative food consultant. “You replace field-based risk with cost-based risk,” he says. “Having control of [variables such as water and temperature] eliminates a lot of potential risks, and that really appeals to investors who don’t understand farming as much and are looking to invest in something at scale.”
Growing grains in a climate-controlled setting is still in the early stages of development, but it’s a significant milestone. Being able to grow grain at a commercial scale could have huge benefits for global food security.
“The war in Ukraine and the spiked wheat prices in response have shown that it’s always a good idea to source and produce wheat locally, not just for cost and security but also just the miles traveled and carbon impact,” says Smith.
In addition to the mobility of indoor farms, vertical farming has the capacity to grow food with 95% less water and 97% less land, according to the USDA, and with no pesticides. There is also the potential for more renewable energy sources; Infarm currently uses 70 percent green-certified energy, with the goal of becoming net-zero by 2045.
There are a few distinct paths we can take to fortify the food ecosystem, including repairing our depleted soil to create a more sustainable ecosystem, and utilizing indoor farming technology to create new means of food production. The ability to grow these critical crops indoors is a huge step forward towards the goal of global food security.