NL: How vertical farms make safe food more accessible

Seven Steps To Heaven is a company from Eindhoven founded by Gertjan and Lianne Meeuws, which grows fresh produce in the high-tech vertical farm using LEDs instead of daylight in combination with temperature and evaporation control. The CEO of the company, Gertjan Meeuws, says that the biggest difference between traditional farming and vertical farming is that an indoor farm can operate where the consumers live – even in the centre of a big city. “Instead of having a long supply chain where the source of your fresh produce is the whole world, all the necessary vegetables come from one local farm. Indoor farming is the new supply chain,” says Meeuws.

Organic farming 2.0
“Vertical farming is not invented by the farmers,” the CEO of Seven Steps To Heaven says. “Usually traditional farmers work far away from the consumers and they have to focus on the yield on making a living most of all. Breeding companies are developing new varieties of vegetables with the emphasis on the resistance, high yield but not on the taste and nutrition. Indoor farming is also about yields and making a living just like traditional farming is, but in addition to those we also focus on growing safe, tasty, nutritious produce – as close to the market as possible.”

Meeuws believes that traditional farming and indoor farming can cooperate – it is not only the one or the other: “For instance, our company can grow young plants that can be planted in a greenhouse or in an open field and they are more vital than the plants grown in the traditional way. We can make young tomato plants that have extra energy, so when they leave our nursery, they still benefit from that energy during the first weeks after being planted in the greenhouse. That even allows the growers to use zero or hardly any pesticides because these plants are so strong. There are lots of ways in which our technology and know-how experience can support traditional farming and breeding.”

Quality, taste and nutritional levels
All the plants have photosynthesis – they take carbon dioxide from the air and produce oxygen and glucose. Meeuws explains that there are three levels of plant metabolism. On the first level the plants produce just enough sugars to merely stay alive, on the second level they produce enough glucose for maintenance and start growing, on the third level the plants make more sugar that they need for their growth and start producing secondary metabolites – they are better known as vitamins and antioxidants, which have enormous importance to our health and wellbeing. Secondary metabolites are important to the life of the plants just as well: plants use those substances for the protection against pests or for the attraction of insects involved in pollination. Meeuws says: “When the plants reach the third level of metabolism, they start giving something like a signal “Environment, don’t eat me!”

Making the plants reach the highest level of their metabolism that would fill them with vitamins is easier if the plants are grown in the controlled environment of an indoor farm than in the open field. In addition to this, a vertical farm operator doesn’t have to harvest the produce unripe for transportation reasons because the concept of an indoor farm involves local consuming. “Most of the fresh produce that we eat today is harvested way too early – the plants don’t reach their full potential, so they are not as tasty and as nutritious as they could have become,” says the co-founder of Seven Steps To Heaven.

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