What happens when we run out of farmland? THIS is what happens, and it’s pretty cool stuff.
By Nicole Buckler
As our available farmland shrinks due to human population expansion, we need to come up with new ideas and fast. A sustainable solution is that of vertical farming. This is already happening experimentally in a number of cities across the world. And some countries are already all-in (for example, there are more than 100 indoor city farms in Japan).
Vertical Farming is undertaken in high-rise buildings and in warehouses in urban areas where the food is eaten. This lowers the carbon footprint – the food does not have to be transported thousands of miles from where it is grown to where it is being consumed. But growing food indoors has other benefits… namely that the “farmers” can control growing conditions. The weather doesn’t have an impact on the growing season. But now there is a new reason to be fascinated with vertical farming. A lot has happened since then the vertical farm concept took off. Indoor farming technologies are tearing ahead and the results are dazzling. This is farming on crack.
Enter the company BrightBox. They are doing amazing things in their commercial research facility for growing food without daylight. The facility in Venlo, The Netherlands, is the first European project to research cultivation without daylight in a commercial setting.
The Netherlands is one of the biggest exporters of agricultural products in the E.U. They know greenhouses well. So it makes sense that the technologies involving indoor crops are going to come from here. While this is mostly still at the research stage, what these crop boffins have worked out bodes well for future food security. At the BrightBox research and education centre, they have fiddled around with light, air, temperature, feed, water and soil and the results are amazing. For example, the Brightbox labs method uses only a fraction of the water currently being used in greenhouses or fields. And, they don’t even need sunlight to grow crops faster and better. For example, UV light can ensure that red lettuce develops a better colour than if grown in normal sunlight. While these crops have the advantage of being super-fresh by avoiding transportation, they also trump other crops in taste. This is because cultivation can be controlled to optimise quality.
Chemical crop protection agents are not needed; and the crops can be produced year-round regardless of the season, because it’s always spring in a city farm (if the indoor farmers want it to be). The most fascinating part of the “indoor farming” movement is what growers can do with lighting. Solid-state LEDs (light-emitting diodes) offer a number of benefits to the horticulture industry, including increased yields, earlier flowering; faster root growth and germination, better control of plant growth, and more economical use of space.
So convinced that lighting for indoor farms is becoming a “thing,” Philips Lighting has started investigating the effects of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) on a range of crops. What they are looking for is the optimum light recipe. And each crop has its own “light recipe.” Promisingly, they have cracked the right recipe for lettuce. Normal lettuce growers can produce five crops a year. But an indoor farm with specialised lighting can produce fifteen crops a year. Plants grow much faster under the blue and red lights than in the sunlight.
You can see why the scientists at Philips Lighting are excited. The company has started their own research centre called LED4CROPS. The trials are helping to establish the best way to use supplementary lighting for crops like herbs, leafy salads, flowers and strawberries. With the correct light recipe, it may be possible to produce strawberries even in the winter months. And if LED light can be used in place of daylight, it means that plants like strawberries can be grown in a vertical storage system in warehouses. This would not have been possible previously, because a multi-tiered system in a greenhouse would result in the lower layers of plants being shaded from daylight.
The ultimate goal of this research is to create a new breed of entrepreneurial growers keen to develop vertical farms in the urban environment. This technology will bring a much more environmentally-friendly and cost-effective way of providing fresh food for urban areas.
Dr Martin McPherson of Stockbridge Technology Centre is enthusiastic. “LED technology opens the door to the concept of urban farming. You can grow crops in multi-storey warehouses, close to point of consumption. LEDs will offer growers great flexibility. You can schedule the crops. If you want to bring them on, you can do so. If you want to slow them down, you can reduce power.”
It is estimated that within ten years, urbanites will be eating food from the nearest indoor farm in the major cities of the world. And perhaps, we will be able to send out personal robots to pick up the food while we manage our drones from the sitting room.
The future is certainly looking bright. ■