How Stockholm wants to be ‘the green foodtech hub of the future’

How Stockholm wants to be 'the green foodtech hub of the future'
Photo: Stina Stjernkvist / TT
In 2017, the Swedish food retail sector was worth 272 billion kronor. But how can the Nordic nation embrace innovation to make the food chain more sustainable? Several startups and business accelerators are investing heavily in sustainable development in the form of foodtech.

At Grönska, 1.3 million plants are grown each year in long rows of racks filled with stacked drawers. This hall in Huddinge in Stockholm county is not just a business premise, but a high-tech vertical farm. Food is grown locally in a controlled and space-efficient environment.

“Sweden imports 60 percent of its food and a third to a quarter of the emissions in Sweden comes from transporting food,” Natalie de Brun, one of the co-founders of the startup, tells The Local.

“Sweden has a short season of three to four months where food can be produced. By producing food in a vertical farm, we do not depend on the climate. We are replicating nature inside and stacking the crops, which is very space-efficient. Each shelf has its own LED lighting and circulating water system. Here we can grow strawberries all year round.”

Foodtech is a movement of companies that are trying to change the way we grow, transport and consume food. By combining traditional and innovative technologies, the idea is that food can become more efficient, sustainable and healthier.

Bright LED lights light up the business space in Huddinge. The plants follow an artificial daylight rhythm to grow as efficiently as possible. Delicate plants such as different kinds of herbs and lettuce are growing in stacks of about 20 metres wide and six metres high. Grönska employees are walking around and taking care of the plants.

“Food is something everyone consumes every day, and you can have a direct effect on it yourself,” explains de Brun. “We are selling our products to local restaurants, supermarkets and even an airline. Growing the amount of arugula or lettuce we grow in one year would require at least 15 times more space if grown on an open field, and a 100 times more carbon emissions from transportation.”

The vertical farm located in southern Stockholm is one Europe's largest. Photo: Lars Pehrson / SvD / TT

In an office in the Söderhallarna building on Stockholm's Södermalm, Sweden Foodtech brings companies together by organizing events and focuses on major themes around the future of food. One of the key questions is simply: How do we manage to feed future generations?

Together with supermarket Coop and impact hub Norrsken, Sweden Foodtech offers support to companies that want to 'reshape the food system'.

“Food is a huge market, from production and transportation to supermarkets and restaurants. But innovation in the sector is very minimal. That's something we would like to change,” says Federico Ronca, Innovation Consultant at Sweden Foodtech.

“One-third of all the food in the world is wasted,” he adds. “A few big producers are managing the whole food market. We are trying to work with them and convince them to open up to new initiatives and technologies. We're connecting the dots, and creating an 'orchestra of the players'.”

The initiative started as a food festival, SMAKA — Good Food Festival, which grew into one of the biggest food festivals on the planet and developed into Sweden Foodtech. Ronca sees Sweden and Stockholm as perfect places for foodtech projects. 

“There is a large tech sector and a great digital infrastructure. Sweden and the Nordics are the best in sustainable development, they are leading in the world. Sweden also doesn't have a strong food tradition, as France and Italy have. That makes that people are very open-minded about food,” he explains.

Stockholm as a hotspot for innovative businesses

The same goals are shared by Stockholm Business Region, the Swedish capital's official promotion agency, which is dedicated to creating a good ecosystem for innovative businesses and hopes to turn the Stockholm into a “leading foodtech hub”.

“Stockholm truly is an innovation-driven place. It's full of early adopters”, says Irena Lundberg, a business manager at Stockholm Business Region.

“These consumers are aware of their responsibility and like to buy eco-friendly products. There is natural support from the city for all kinds of sustainable projects, and Sweden itself is a very steady environment for starting a business.”

The public interest, environmental awareness, Nordic culinary traditions and active tech community in the city make Stockholm the place to be for foodtech initiatives, she believes.

But despite strong ambitions, there are not yet any figures or statistics available to fulfil the hopeful expectations. Stockholm Business Region is currently monitoring 300 businesses in the foodtech industry, and according to Lundberg, expects to see results “in about one year”.

At Grönska, we walk along the rows of racks where all kinds of herbs and lettuce varieties are grown. The founders of this vertical farm have experienced the opportunities available to startups in Sweden firsthand.  

“Stockholm is a great place to start an innovative business. There is a great startup culture, we really feel empowered and encouraged here. There are a lot of facilitators and enablers that help us grow our business,” says de Brun.

In the vertical farm in Huddinge, various herbs and lettuce varieties are grown locally and used in supermarkets and restaurants. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT.

Until now, traditional greenhouse production is the norm. This type of production is less energy effective and has higher transportation emissions. But Grönska sees a big technology shift coming up. 

“In the near future we can inexpensively build high tech vertical farms and grow food on a large scale,” says de Brun. “This way we can grow our food local and more energy-efficient and people can eat better and healthier. There will be more space for other players in the food market.”

But she admits that it will take time to change the food industry.

“We are working with a fresh, organic and alive product,” explains de Brun. “It's a complex and established industry. Everyone needs food every day, you can't change that system overnight. There's a lot going on, and it's cool to be part of that wave. Food is key.”

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