Fittonia plants are seen as they grow in in a special darkened room illuminated by blue and red LED’s in Den Bosch, central Netherlands, Monday March 28, 2011. Farming is moving indoors, where the sun never shines, where rainfall is irrelevant and where the climate is always right 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. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
BOSCH, Netherlands (AP) — Farming is moving indoors, where the sun
never shines, where rainfall is irrelevant and where the climate is
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 an answer to the world’s food problems.
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.
world already is 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, fertilize,
harvest and transport it.
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 U.N. predicts.
feed so many people may require expanding farmland at the expense of
forests and wilderness, or finding ways to radically increase crop
and three other Dutch bioengineers 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
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.
a larger “climate chamber” a few miles away, a nursery is nurturing
cuttings of fittonia, a colorful house plant, in two layers of 70 square
meters (750 sq. feet) 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.
Gertjan Meeuws of PlantLab, a private research company, smiles during an interview with The Associated Press in a lab where he is growing herbs and vegetables under LED lights in Den Bosch, central Netherlands, Thursday, March 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Arthur Max)
Dutch researchers say they plan to build a commercial-sized building in
the Netherlands of 1,300 square meters (14,000 sq. feet), 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.
says a building of 100 sq meters (1,075 sq. feet) and 14 layers of
plants could provide a daily diet of 200 grams (7 ounces) of fresh fruit
and vegetables to the entire population of Den Bosch, about 140,000
people. Their idea is not to grow foods that require much space, like
corn or potatoes. “We are looking at the top of the pyramid where we
have high value and low volume,” he said.
is not only unnecessary but can be harmful, says Meeuws. Plants need
only specific wavelengths of light to grow, but in nature they must
adapt to the full range of light as a matter of survival. When light and
other natural elements are manipulated, the plants become more
efficient, using less energy to grow.
is good, but too much nature is killing,” said Meeuws, standing in a
steaming cubicle amid racks of what he called “happy plants.”
more than a decade the four researchers have been tinkering with
combinations of light, soil and temperature on a variety of plants, and
now say their growth rate is three times faster than under greenhouse
conditions. They use no pesticides, and about 90 percent less water than
outdoors agriculture. While LED bulbs are expensive, the cost is
van Kooten, a professor of horticulture at Wageningen University who
has observed the project but has no stake in it, says a kilogram (2.2
pounds) of tomatoes grown in Israeli fields needs 60 liters (16 gallons)
of water, while those grown in a Dutch greenhouse require one-quarter
of that. “With this system it is possible in principle to produce a kilo
of tomatoes with a little over one liter of water,” he said.
Yellow peppers are illuminated by the light of a flash while the rest of the plant is seen under blue and red Light Emitting Diode (LED) lights at PlantLab, a private research facility, in Den Bosch, central Netherlands, Monday March 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
notion of multistory greenhouses has been around for a while. Dickson
Despommier, a retired Columbia University professor of environmental
health and author of the 2010 book “The Vertical Farm,” began working on
indoor farming as a classroom project in 1999, and the idea has spread
to several startup projects across the U.S.
“Over the last five year urban farming has really gained traction,” Despommier said in a telephone interview.
argues that city farming means producing food near the consumer,
eliminating the need to transport it long distances at great costs of
fuel and spoilage and with little dependency on the immediate climate.
science behind LED lighting in agriculture “is quite rigorous and well
known,” he said, and the costs are dropping dramatically. The next
development, organic light-emitting diodes or OLEDs, which can be packed
onto thin film and wrapped around a plant, will be even more
efficiently tuned to its needs.
of the more dramatic applications of plant-growing chambers under LED
lights was by NASA, which installed them in the space Shuttle and the
space station Mir in the 1990s as part of its experiment with
system is a first clear step that has to grow,” Van Kooten says, but
more research is needed and people need to get used to the idea of
sunless, landless agriculture.
“But it’s clear to me a system like this is necessary.”
SOURCE: The Associated Press