Outside its stores in Malmö and Helsingborg, Sweden, Ikea is now growing lettuce in shipping containers. The company soon plans to begin serving the greens to customers at its onsite restaurants.
For the company, it’s a step toward more environmental sustainability. “There is a need to find better solutions to produce more healthy food using less land and water and at the same time decrease food waste,” says Catarina Englund, innovation and development leader for the Ingka Group, the company that runs most Ikea stores globally. “Urban farming has the potential to transform the global food value chain, as it aims to produce local fresh food within close proximity to meet demand, all while using less natural resources.”
Inside each shipping container, a hydroponic growing system holds four levels of plants, or up to 3,600 heads of lettuce. There’s no soil, no pesticides or herbicides, and, like other indoor farming, the system uses up to 90% less water than growing crops in a field. LED lights, running on renewable energy like the rest of the Ikea store, are tuned to help the plants grow as quickly as possible. The lettuce also gets nutrients from food waste.
“What we feed the plants is actually [made] out of food waste,” says Fredrik Olrog, the cofounder and managing director of Bonbio, the company providing the indoor farming system to Ikea. “That’s our uniqueness: We’re actually trying to make the future of farming circular.”
Bonbio is a part of a larger group, OX2, that makes fuel from food waste, and discovered a way to capture critical nutrients for farming–like nitrogen and phosphorus–as a by-product of making that fuel. It means that food waste from Ikea’s own restaurants can be used to help more food grow. “At these two sites, we’re doing a fully closed loop system–we’re actually taking their own food waste,” Olrog says.
For Ikea, food is a relatively small part of its overall carbon footprint (despite the popularity of its restaurants). But as it works to improve sustainability across the company, moving to a circular model and experimenting with renting the furniture that it sells, food is a piece of the solution. Globally, more than 30% of climate emissions are connected to food. At its restaurants, the company has started moving to more plant-based food–from veggie meatballs to veggie hot dogs–and is working to cut food waste in half. Growing food itself is the next step. Ultimately, the company aims to become “climate positive,” meaning that it reduces more emissions than it creates.
As it works with Bonbio, “we will explore how to become self-sufficient in growing our own local fresh, healthy, and sustainable salad greens in vertical farms–at the same or lower cost levels as conventionally grown food,” says Englund. As with most indoor farming projects, it’s starting with greens. “For the time being, it’s easiest to grow vegetables with short growth cycles that can generate high yields per surface area, for instance, lettuce and kale,” she says.
The cold, dark winters in Sweden make it a particularly good place to test the system, since lettuce is imported for much of the year. Greens grown on-site can be better tasting (having lived in Sweden as a Californian, I can attest to the sadness of Swedish produce departments at grocery stores) and avoid the emissions of transportation. In tests that will last for a year, the partners are studying how much lettuce the system can grow, and how the unique nutrients that the system is using can improve the nutrition of the final food.
“The aim is to learn to be able to optimize and establish best practices and proof of concepts for vertical farming within Ikea operations,” says Englund. At the pilot stores, Ikea plans to initially serve the lettuce in its cafes for its own employees, and once it is satisfied with the production routines, will begin serving the lettuce to customers in its restaurants.
“In the long term, Ingka Group hopes to be self-sufficient with locally grown, circular lettuce and other leafy greens,” she says.