Christmas, poinsettias, and vertical farming

Season 1, Episode 1

Sabin Bieri

I have a mixed relationship with poinsettias (euphorbia pulcherrima). In my memory, they start to appear when the nights grow long and the days are grey and dull under the low-hanging cloud cover that characterizes our winters in much of Switzerland. There they stand, proud houseplants, on a side table – its tiled surface meticulously polished – in the tidy living rooms of middle-class terraced houses. Below it, a crocheted doily that is smoothed out a dozen times a day but still remains creased – as if to annoy the housewife. The memory is dated, there’s no question about it. As are the household protagonists and the décor of the parlour. Right down to the cloud cover – but that’s beyond our scope here.

Photo: Iris_art / shutterstock

This houseplant has such a sterile feel to it, you almost wonder if it’s real. It doesn’t just look exotic; it actually is. And that’s one reason my relationship with it has relaxed somewhat. Ever since we started developing projects with research partners in Laos on the coffee value chain and local labour markets, I’ve come across poinsettias of a completely different format. There, they’re not just staid little houseplants, but sprawling bushes in many a shade of red, coral, and burgundy, interspersed with a striking eggshell white. A colour, incidentally, that constitutes the second reason my discomfort with poinsettias has diminished somewhat. They look really good on a mid-century teak sideboard and lend just the right amount of patina to the fashionable Scandinavian furniture featured in interior design blogs.

A giveaway from the Venture Lab

As a member of an expert group of the German Science and Humanities Council, I was recently presented with just such a poinsettia as a giveaway. It was grown in an environment completely free of patina – the Agri-food Venture Lab of the Technical University of Munich. With its 50,000 students and over 600 professors, TUM is not the largest university in Germany. But it’s one of the best – and it boasts a high number of start-ups, including a respectable number of the coveted unicorns that generate a market value of over one billion Euros even before going public.

Innovations in the agricultural, nutritional, and life sciences contribute substantially to this status. To combat the problem of world hunger, TUM scientists are developing high-tech solutions such as vertical farming. My eggshell-coloured poinsettia was also grown in a climate-controlled container, where plants are kept on several levels in a soluble substrate under LED lighting. This has great advantages because it saves space, reduces water consumption, and supplies nutrients in a very targeted way. The laboratory we visited bred plants containing a high concentration of proteins – an ingredient that’s currently in high demand.

High-tech and high-end, without the human vector

A weak point of the set-up is its energy consumption. And its Achilles’ heel is the entry of germs through human intervention. TUM scientists are currently working on systems that are highly automated to meet the high hygiene requirements. Production systems that function completely without the human vector are the future. The plant manager controls the system remotely from their desktop.

Smart farming with robots. Photo: Es sarawuth / shutterstock

For the further development of the Munich projects in this direction, it’s very handy to also have the Venture Lab for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics right around the corner. Later, we’re shown a small robot that screws a targeted weed out of the soil. It’s the broadleaf dock, Rumex obtusifolius, that makes life difficult for organic farms, and not only in Bavaria. As organic farming is based on lower pesticide use, this weed has to be laboriously cut out by hand. A job that the researchers envisage will in future be done by robots.

Very impressed, I wrap my poinsettia in newspaper. There’s a lot to be said for high-end, high-tech research. The infrastructure promotes collaboration, creates experimental spaces, leaves nothing to be desired. You can feel the curiosity, the commitment, the enthusiasm of the researchers to contribute something towards meeting the great challenges of our time.

Transferability, the sticking point

It makes sense to me that vertical indoor systems can make a decisive contribution to the food supply of urban conurbations like Singapore or Abu Dhabi in the future. But it’s unclear whether this development also has potential for Dakar or Nairobi. The researchers themselves said that low-tech solutions are needed for Africa.

And that’s the sticking point. Protein extracted from peas for plant-based substitute products, valuable oils for medical applications, polymers from algae as alternative packaging materials – these are all great developments that may reduce our ecological footprint, and will also find a market. Just like the poinsettias next to the mulled wine stand on a dreary day in central Munich.

But in the past 50 years we haven’t yet managed to ensure food security for areas in which the number of people going hungry is again increasing. Technology- and capital-intensive solutions, such as those produced so successfully by the scientists at TUM, disappoint when it comes to transferability to areas that are systemically shaped by other framework conditions. And they don’t address the distribution system at the root of the undersupply.

The successes of TUM’s venture labs are inspiring. I’d love to visit the venture lab that offers a breakthrough to end world hunger. To see the infrastructure that is necessary for innovations that consign hunger crises to history once and for all. To know the rankings that give points for this. To celebrate those achievements as unicorns.

Back in my hotel room on Kaiser Ludwig-Platz, a room with just the right amount of dust, I place my poinsettia on the window sill. It looks wonderful there.