Inside Berlin’s Food Revolution

Emerging from a tumultuous 20th century as Europe’s creative hub, Berlin remains at the vanguard, from its thriving startup scene to its influential art world. But among the most important of innovations coming out of the German capital right now is a local food revolution.

INFARM, Berlin

Across the city, independent projects are confronting the challenge of feeding an ever-increasing and demanding global population. Examples range from initiatives connecting consumers with local producers, such as the French-born Food Assembly, which set up its first Berlin arm at Agora in Neukölln; Contemporary Food Lab, which examines and experiments with the relationship between humans, nature and food; an urban foraging app which notifies users of fruiting trees; Roof Water Farm, a state-funded exploration of decentralised water use and aquaponic farming; Original Unverpackt, Germany’s first packaging-free supermarket; Stand Land Food, an interactive festival to discuss solutions; and INFARM, a seed-to-table project demonstrating the value and viability of microfarming.

Of course, Berlin is not unique in this regard. The trend for small schemes that decentralise food production has been sweeping across Europe and the United States with growing vigour for the past decade or so. But what is distinctive is the openness to change that the city engenders. In established cities like London, Paris and New York, the future was decided long ago. Here it’s still being hammered out on a daily basis by a set of international innovators, drawn to the city by its affordable cost of living, abundance of space – both physical and political – and potential for experimentation.

Florian Niedermeier is part of a three-person team that runs Markthalle IX in multicultural Kreuzberg. Designed by architect Hermann Blankenstein and built in the 1890s, the market hall was one of 14 created across the city to improve hygiene conditions at local markets. Today, only three of these historic venues remain, and number nine is by far the best known of the bunch.

Maintained by the local government, Markthalle IX, was, up until four years ago, practically a dead zone. In 2011, Florian and his colleagues seized the opportunity to take over its management. Since then, the redbrick building with its functional yet beautiful turn-of-the-century metalwork has undergone a most remarkable revival, becoming a new food hub not only for the neighbourhood but, increasingly, for the city as a whole.

“Food-wise, Berlin is one of the most interesting and exciting places to be,” explains Florian, who grew up in rural south Germany. “After the Wall came down, the things begin to change in the countryside. Farmers originally from Switzerland, Poland, Sicily, the Black Forest, Austria… brought their farms to Brandenburg, where land was affordable.” But the land surrounding Berlin is not particularly well suited to growing, so those who came, had to improvise.

This influx of influences has created a hotchpotch of traditions and innovations, coming together to create a new way of farming. These agricultural pioneers peddle their wares at the Markthalle’s Friday and Saturday local market. In addition, the venue is host to hugely popular weekly Street Food Thursday event, a much-loved Breakfast Market, and a number of other less regular but equally admired food markets.

This October, Florian and his team plan to take things a step further, with a brand new festival, Stadt Land Food. The four-day event will spill out from the confines of the market hall and into the surrounding streets, with educational workshops that encompass all aspects of food from production to preparation and consumption. Crucially, the festival aims to confront some of the challenges that persist with the current locavore movement: namely inclusivity. Making high-quality, locally produced food accessible and affordable to the spectrum of society, including, for example, low-income families and immigrant communities, whose voices are traditionally excluded from the conversation, for whatever reason.

“We’re not going to come up with all the solutions in October.” says Katherine Kuna, co-organiser of Stadt Land Food. “We know that many existing ideas are unsustainable because they are not economically viable for everyone. This may sound naive, but the festival is about bringing people from different backgrounds together: that’s where answers can be found. It’s rare that people from the political agricultural movement, for example, are in the same room as a foodie interested in the newest dishes coming out of Thailand. This is not an economic or political conference, it’s a multidisciplinary event, taking into account cultural, gastronomic and agricultural approaches.”

Ultimately, the aim of the Markthalle and the festival, is to get people thinking critically about the current food production system, and try to provide feasible alternatives. Florian acknowledges recent research suggesting that intensive farming is in fact better for the environment in terms of net CO2 emissions. But it’s not just about that, he argues. When the human and environmental cost of industrial agriculture happens so far away, it’s easy to feel helpless and removed, like a small cog in a giant machine. “Meeting with the same supplier week in week out starts to mean something,” adds Kathrin. “A personal relationship makes things more vivid.” This growing awareness of food systems sparks a shift in attitude, from a passive, linear approach to an active and visible feedback loop where people feel empowered and inspired.

Berlin’s Markthalle IX (c) Øystein Vidnes via Flickr

The Markthalle is not just a place where goods are traded. It’s also a space for the exchange of ideas. “We truly believe that there is a future for markets, but it’s not yet clear which kind,” says Florian. “It’s important to find out, and Berlin allows us to experiment.”

Another stand-out project whose existence is thanks, in part, to what you might call the ‘Berlin condition’, is INFARM. Set up by a team of three autodidactic young Israelis, the initiative is a multifaceted investigation into the potential of microfarming.

The trio came to Berlin two years ago and began experimenting with hydroponics at home, growing 30 different types of lettuce. “People were immeditately interested,” says co-founder Guy Galonska. “We noticed a huge demand for both knowledge and innovation.” The city provided the perfect breeding ground for their growing ambitions, and in November 2013, they moved from a small studio to a sprawling former warehouse in the heart of hip Kreuzberg. “Berlin is a good place to start. Not only is it affordable – where else could we have a space like this? – but people here are open. They see and accept the logic behind what we’re doing.”

Out front, INFARM is an eye-catching cafe and event area, with one wall covered entirely in cascading plants. From the far end, a warm, purple glow is emitted through a transparent screen: that’s where the magic happens. Using state-of-the-art LED grow lamps by Finnish company Valoya, the team grow leafy greens (rocket, lettuce, cabbage, root vegetables and various herbs), which are then served up as part of a weekly brunch on Saturday afternoons, as well as occasional supper clubs. Hydroponics is around 90% more efficient than growing with soil, since water can be circulated and nutrients delivered with much more control. The LEDs, though pricier than a standard High Pressure Sodium, use a tiny fraction of the energy, and have a lifespan of over 50,000 hours. It’s this relatively new technology that makes the project viable.

“By limiting logistics, the micro-environment can be part of the solution to the global food crisis,” says Guy. “You can’t live off lettuce alone; this is just the first step. But we can also grow rice, which does feed the world. In fact, our next experiment is to create a rice paddy right here.”

Like the Stadt Land Food team, Guy acknowledges the potential for cultural change that closed-loop projects like his can inspire. Being able to see and experience the food cycle brings city dwellers back into the fold. “Currently food production is out of sight and out of mind,” says Guy. “INFARM is the opposite.” The team also plans to start offering workshops that engage those interested and help them build their own, similar setups.

Traditionally, food is a great unifier. Everyone can relate to it and, what’s more, it’s inclusive because it’s subjective; a matter of taste rather than knowledge or background. Projects like INFARM, Stadt Land Food and others have harnessed that binding quality, and suddenly it seems the unthinkable is happening: economically and socially viable solutions are emerging from Berlin’s singular situation. Thanks to these innovators, the question is no longer if, but when.

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This article was first published in T-R-E-M-O-R-S Magazine.