Sunless Farming Touted as Answer to World Food Problems

diy grow light photo

The DIY version of growing plants with artificial light. Photo by nickjohnson via Flickr CC

What happens when we change the climate so much, from temperatures to rainfall patterns, that crops can no longer be easily grown? For some, the solution seems to be to move crops indoors, take away all natural sunlight and regulate the climate within massive grow houses. By removing Nature from the equation, advocates say food production would be far more consistent, with 1,075 square feet providing food for 140,000. Could this really be the future of farming? CBS news reports that Dutch bioengineers, including Gertjan Meeuws of PlatLab, are taking the idea of greenhouses to the next level. Their idea of growhouses would exclude all natural input and be entirely controlled from the inside, including artificial lighting, a perfectly regulated climate for that crop, and precise watering.

"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."

The idea is to figure out how to grow crops in these regulated indoor places so that anyone can grow crops anywhere -- from buildings placed next to supermarkets and malls, to high-rises with a spare floor to rent, and so on. The researchers believe that any space of 1,075 square feet set up with the right equipment and layers of plants could provide a fresh diet of produce to 140,000 people.

The idea of a small warehouse sporting ultra-efficient water use, zero pesticides, and energy-efficient LED bulbs (possibly powered by solar or wind), placed right next to markets and feeding a city is appealing, but exactly how practical? The question is will these plants that rely on human inputs be nearly as nutritious as plants grown with natural inputs? The researchers state that plants need only certain wavelengths to grow, which is why LEDs would work just as well, or better, than sunlight. But do we honestly know enough about the synergy of plants and ecosystems -- and our bodies -- to be able to raise crops that nourish us?

"Olaf van Kooten, a professor of horticulture at Wageningen University who has observed the project but has no stake in it, says 2.2 pounds of tomatoes grown in Israeli fields needs 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. 'This system is a first clear step that has to grow.'"

It sounds fairly amazing, and makes the crazy-cool vertical farming concepts we see so often look almost normal in comparison. But there are still a number of questions to ask, and food consumption habits to question (such as incredible levels of food waste in developed countries; buying in-season, local food; and promoting small urban gardens) before something like this seems like a genuine solution.

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