Can indoor wheat help with crop failures in the future?

Wheat in the “climate chamber” of the Technical University of Munich

Five to six harvests should be possible per year.

(Photo: Technical University of Munich)

Freising What actually happens when wheat also gets light at night? Always enough water, warmth and humidity? The answer to this question is hidden in a small room in a research facility in Freising, north of Munich.

Violet light floods into the gray corridor when Sebastian Eichelsbacher opens the door to the “climate chamber”. The agronomist enters and leans over a metal plant table on which green ears of wheat are crowded. From above, she illuminates a panel with hundreds of small LED lights. Small fans move the air.

Eichelsbacher strokes the stalks and points to delicate yellow spots on the tip of the leaf. “The discoloration is due to light stress, but the leaf looks good overall.” Researchers from the School of Life Sciences at the Technical University of Munich expose their wheat to light for 20 hours a day. Dehumidifiers, cooling and irrigation systems, which can be controlled via an outdoor computer, are humming. Sensors measure the CO2 content, cameras monitor the growth.

Five to six harvests per year possible

The result after only 50 days at temperatures of around 20 degrees and humidity of around 65 percent: “The grain feels doughy, in ten days it will be hard enough for the harvest,” says the 27-year-old with satisfaction. With a ripening phase of just 60 days, the TUM researchers manage five to six harvests a year. Farmers can only thresh wheat from the field once a year.

“In here we can create the ideal climate that just doesn’t exist outside,” explains Eichelsbacher. Especially not in the midst of climate change, with more frequent droughts and heavy rainfall, which have recently devastated parts of northern Italy and which repeatedly cause serious crop failures in Europe.

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The goal of the interdisciplinary research project “Revolution of food production”: achieve maximum yields in the shortest possible time with the help of “highly automated conditions”, without pesticides and with minimal use of space and water.

“How else should a growing world population feed themselves in the future without destroying the environment?” asks Senthold Asseng, Eichelsbacher’s doctoral supervisor and director of the Hans Eisenmann Forum for Agricultural Sciences at TUM. He and his team recently reached the final of a competition organized by the Werner Siemens Foundation and endowed with around 100 million euros. Asseng plans to use the money to set up a center to conduct large-scale research into growing crops under “controlled conditions.”

Vertical indoor farms are already on the market. Instead of grain, high-quality vegetables such as lettuce or cabbage grow there. Because only they bring enough margin to offset the high energy costs for lighting and air conditioning.

But Asseng and his team want to investigate whether wheat can also thrive competitively in vertical farms in the future. After all, grain is the most important food crop. It supplies a fifth of all the calories and proteins for the world diet, says Asseng.

Indoors: 6000 times more wheat per hectare possible than in the field

Asseng’s team uses a space-saving wheat bred by the US space agency Nasa. Instead of one meter, it only rises 50 centimeters. If you stack these in layers, the yield rates increase enormously. “With 100 shifts, we could produce 6,000 times more wheat on just one hectare than is possible in the field,” says Asseng.

And that with a fraction of the water consumption: While 1,500 liters of water are required for one kilo of wheat in the field, it is only 140 milliliters in the TUM wheat growth factory, that is one ten-thousandth. Because the water remains in the circuit there, while outside a large part evaporates.

Agricultural scientist Senthold Asseng

“With 100 layers, we could produce 6,000 times more wheat on just one hectare than is possible in the field.”

(Photo: Technical University of Munich)

Eichelsbacher points to two hoses that are connected to a water tank outside the climate chamber and that lead under the plant table. One hose waters the grain there twice a day, the rest flows back through the second. “We collect the water that evaporates into our micro-atmosphere with the dehumidifier and use it further,” says Eichelsbacher. A minimal amount of water remains in the grain during harvest.

From Asseng’s point of view, indoor farms are therefore an “absolute topic of the future”. According to the agronomist, they will not replace agriculture, but they will “supplement an important building block for our diet”.

When and whether indoor wheat can assert itself on the market also depends on how quickly large quantities of renewable electricity will be available. Investors from the Emirates have already contacted Asseng. Energy prices, they let it be known, didn’t matter to them.

Companies push indoor farming in Dubai and Denmark

While some vertical farming companies, such as the Berlin start-up Infarm, are struggling, not least because of the energy crisis, the Bustanica company recently opened the largest vertical farm in the Middle East in Dubai. According to Siemens, which supplies automation and building technology for the 330,000 square meter and 40 million dollar plant, the water consumption is 95 percent lower than in conventional agriculture. And free of pesticides and chemicals.

The desert farm is expected to produce one million kilograms of vegetables such as lettuce, rocket or cabbage every year. Anders Riemann, founder of the Danish start-up Nordic Harvest, also sees growth potential for the business. Nordic Harvest benefits from cheap offshore electricity in Denmark.

Nordic Harvest’s indoor farm near Copenhagen

The company, which benefits from cheap offshore electricity in Denmark, also wants to expand to Germany.

(Photo: Reuters)

In an interview with the Handelsblatt, he announced that he would like to expand to Germany in the coming year. From 2025, the construction of a vertical farm in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania with a cultivation area of ​​120,000 square meters should be completed. The Danes want to produce 5,000 tons of lettuce, herbs and cabbage there for the German market every year.

Nordic Harvest is thus responding to a demand that is constantly increasing as a result of climate change: “The German retail trade is struggling with yield losses and poor quality of vegetables and fruit. Buyers are desperately looking for alternatives,” says Volkmar Keuter, who has been researching building-integrated agriculture at the Fraunhofer UMSICHT Institute for ten years.

Because of the drought summer last year, leaf lettuce from Germany was almost completely missing from the supermarkets. Keuter sees a problem above all in the high import volumes. “We get half of all vegetables from abroad. If we don’t want to make ourselves completely dependent and vulnerable, we need a replacement when the harvest fails elsewhere.”

For the Fraunhofer researcher, because of the climate crisis, there is no way around more greenhouses and, with falling electricity prices, vertical farms that produce in a more space-saving manner. However, it remains to be seen whether indoor wheat will also contribute to this in the future.

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