The Netherlands-based AgriTech start-up Future Crops, is boosting output of a pure, high-yielding basil variety it successfully adapted for cultivation in the company’s primarily solar powered 2,000m2 vertical farm. The advanced, clean-farming technique for this aromatic basil variety will impart a long shelf life and secure a steady supply of locally grown, pesticide-free herb to the European market.
The proprietary seeds were developed at the Israeli Agricultural Research Organization (ARO) by Nativ Dudai, PhD, professor and head of The Unit of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants. Dudai is considered a prominent global figure in the mapping, breeding and development of basil varieties. His research team was the first in the world to sequence the whole sweet basil genome.
Royal herb, royal treatment
Designated the “king of herbs,” basil is one of the leading three herbs marketed in Europe, alongside mint and coriander. Its distinct aromatic qualities make it a favorite of the culinary world, yet because of its soft delicate leaves, it is unusually demanding to cultivate. Basil requires a minimum of five hours of sunshine daily, and thrives in warm, temperate subtropical climates. It is highly sensitive to cold, making northern Europe a less than ideal spot for growing basil. Basil also carries a characteristically short shelf life, as its tender leaves blacken and wilt easily.
“Most of the basil varieties today have been developed to grow in the outdoors in open fields as well as green houses,” explains Dudai. “Our goal was breeding varieties that would best fit the novel vertical farming paradigm. Our breakthrough in sequencing the basil genome gave us the modern molecular tools for developing cultivars imbued with very specific desired genetic characteristics. We in particular searched for such traits as resilience to environmental stressors, yield capabilities, as well as flavor and textural properties.”
Natural breeding creates the perfect seed
Thanks to extensive shared agronomical know-how and access to Professor Dudai’s impressive seed bank and database, basil seeds harboring all the desired traits were selected and brought together via a process of natural breeding in order to create the perfect seed for cultivation in a vertical farm. This was achieved without genetic modifications or editing. Dudai notes that the team has developed a number of different herb seed varieties via this method. The start-up has finalized negotiations with the ARO Institute to purchase exclusive licensing rights to these seeds for commercialization worldwide.
Future Crops developed ideal climate conditions for its basil, allowing it to thrive year-round even during the cold Dutch winter. Equipped with precision agricultural technology, this signature basil crop is grown on a unique, nutrient-enriched soil-like substrate, with all cultivation parameters – including light, temperature, wind, and humidity, fully controlled.
“Plants behave very differently in closed environments versus in an open field,” says Gary Grinspan, CEO and co-founder of Future Crops. “We are constantly observing and tuning into their growth needs to mimic the outdoor field ambience as much as possible.” As a result of these arduous measures, Future Crops’ vertically farmed basil has almost tripled its yield over the last three years and boasts a shelf life that stretches over two weeks under optimum storage conditions. It also possesses a distinctive, appealing flavor and fragrance that captivates chefs and is completely free of pesticides.
Basil for food producers
“Our basil has received excellent feedback from Genoa residents, who claim it to be as good as the globally renowned Genovese basil,” Grinspan adds. Genovese basil is considered to be the gold standard in basil cultivation, unmatched in quality and flavor, and a favorite of pesto producers.
Future Crops grows a range of basil varieties, including cinnamon, lemon, lime, and Thai basil. With a focus on the retail and foodservice sectors, the company says it is also targeting food producers, especially makers of pesto.
“We have been able to supply a premium pesto brand with basil that was not appropriate for retail but ideal for use as the base for a condiment,” explains Grinspan. “This proved instrumental in reducing waste while enabling us to provide high-quality product at a reasonable cost, thus using 100% of the crop and contributing to sustainable sourcing and farming.”