Indoor farming may solve world food problem

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 12 April 2011

Farming is moving indoors, where the sun never shines, where rainfall is irrelevant and where the climate is always right.

Indoor rice field in Tokyo.

The perfect crop field could be inside a windowless building with meticulously controlled light, temperature, humidity, air quality and nutrition. It could be in a New York high-rise, a Siberian bunker or a sprawling complex in the Saudi desert.

Advocates say this, or something like it, may be the answer to the world’s food problems.

“In order to keep a planet that’s worth living on, we have to change our methods,” says Gertjan Meeuws of PlantLab, a private research company.

The world is already having trouble feeding itself. Half the people on earth live in cities, and nearly half of those – about 3 billion – are hungry or malnourished.

Food prices, currently soaring, are buffeted by droughts, floods and the cost of energy required to plant, fertilise, harvest and transport produce.

And prices will only get more unstable. Climate change makes long-term crop planning uncertain.

Farmers in many parts of the world already are draining available water resources to the last drop.

And the world is getting more crowded: by mid-century, the global population will grow from 6.8 billion to 9 billion, the UN predicts.

To feed so many people may require expanding farmland at the expense of forests and wilderness, or finding ways to radically increase crop yields.

Growing process

Meeuws and three other Dutch bio-engineers have taken the concept of a greenhouse a step further, growing vegetables, herbs and house plants in enclosed and regulated environments where even natural light is excluded.

In their research station, strawberries, yellow peppers, basil and banana plants take on an eerie pink glow under red and blue bulbs of Light-Emitting Diodes, or LEDs.

Water trickles into the pans when needed and all excess is recycled and the temperature is kept constant.

Lights go on and off, simulating day and night, but according to the rhythm of the plant – which may be better at shorter cycles than 24 hours – rather than the rotation of the Earth.

In a larger “climate chamber” a few kilometres away, a nursery is nurturing cuttings of fittonia, a colourful house plant, in two layers of 70m² each. Blasts of mist keep the room humid and the temperature is similar to the plants’ native South America.

After the cuttings take root – the most sensitive stage in the growing process – they are wheeled into a greenhouse and the chamber is again used for rooting. The process cuts the required time to grow a mature plant to six weeks from 12 or more.

The Dutch researchers say they plan to build a commercial-sized building in the Netherlands of 1, 300m², with four separate levels of vegetation by the end of this year.

After that, they envision growing vegetables next to shopping malls, supermarkets or other food retailers.

– Sapa

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