Vegetables from the MIT incubator – the solution to the global food crisis?

Even among their rather unusual colleagues – creative geniuses and slightly crazy scientists of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, which is located near Boston (USA), where giant inflatable sharks hang from the ceiling, tables are often decorated with robot heads, and thin, short-haired scientists in Hawaiian shirts admiringly discussing mysterious formulas drawn in chalk on a blackboard – Saleb Harper seems to be a very unusual person. While his colleagues in scientific research create : artificial intelligence, smart prostheses, next-generation folding machines and medical devices that display the human nervous system in 3D, Harper is working on – He grows cabbages. Over the past year, he’s transformed the Institute’s small fifth-floor lobby (behind his lab doors) into a super-tech garden that looks like it’s been brought to life out of a sci-fi movie. Several varieties of broccoli, tomatoes and basil grow here, seemingly in the air, bathed in blue and red neon LED lights; and their white roots make them look like jellyfish. The plants wrapped around the glass wall, 7 meters long and 2.5 meters high, so that it seems as if they wrapped around an office building. It is not difficult to guess that if you give free rein to Harper and his colleagues, in the near future they can turn the whole metropolis into such a living and edible garden.

“I believe we have the power to change the world and the global food system,” says Harper, a tall, stocky 34-year-old man in a blue shirt and cowboy boots. “The potential for urban farming is enormous. And these are not empty words. “Urban farming” in recent years has outgrown the “look, it’s really possible” phase (during which experiments were made to grow lettuce and vegetables on city rooftops and in empty city spaces) and has become a real wave of innovation, launched by thinkers firmly standing on their feet, like Harper. He co-founded the CityFARM project a year ago, and Harper is now researching how high-tech can help optimize vegetable yields. At the same time, sensor systems are used that monitor the need of plants for water and fertilizers, and feed seedlings with light of the optimal wave frequency: diodes, in response to the needs of the plant, send light that not only gives life to plants, but also determines their taste. Harper dreams that such plantations in the future will take their place on the roofs of buildings – in real cities where many people live and work.  

The innovations that Harper proposes to introduce can reduce the cost of agriculture and reduce its environmental impact. He claims that by measuring and controlling light, watering and fertilizing according to his method, it is possible to reduce water consumption by 98%, accelerate the growth of vegetables by 4 times, completely eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, double the nutritional value of vegetables and improve their taste.   

Food production is a serious environmental problem. Before being on our table, it usually makes a journey of thousands of kilometers. Kevin Frediyani, head of organic farming at Bicton College, an agricultural school in Devon, UK, has estimated that the UK imports 90% of its fruits and vegetables from 24 countries (of which 23% comes from England). It turns out that the delivery of a head of cabbage grown in Spain and delivered by truck to the UK will lead to the emission of about 1.5 kg of harmful carbon emissions. If you grow this head in the UK, in a greenhouse, the figure will be even higher: about 1.8 kg of emissions. “We just don’t have enough light, and glass doesn’t hold heat very well,” notes Frediyani. But if you use a special insulated building with artificial lighting, you can reduce emissions to 0.25 kg. Frediyani knows what he’s talking about: he previously managed orchards and vegetable plantations at the Paington Zoo, where in 2008 he proposed a vertical planting method to grow animal feed more efficiently. If we can put such methods on stream, we will get cheaper, fresher and more nutritious food, we will be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by millions of tons annually, including in the part of production that concerns the packaging, transportation and sorting of agricultural products, which in total produces 4 times more harmful emissions than the cultivation itself. This can significantly delay the approach of the impending global food crisis.

UN experts have calculated that by 2050 the world’s population will grow by 4.5 billion, and 80% of the world’s inhabitants will live in cities. Already today, 80% of the land suitable for agriculture is being used, and prices for products are rising due to increased droughts and floods. Under such conditions, agricultural innovators have turned their sights on cities as a possible solution to the problem. After all, vegetables can be grown anywhere, even on skyscrapers or in abandoned bomb shelters.

The number of corporations that are starting to use innovative greenhouse technologies for growing vegetables and feeding them with LEDs includes, for example, such a giant as Philips Electronics, which has its own department for agricultural LEDs. Scientists working there are creating new types of packaging lines and management systems, exploring the possibilities of microclimate technologies, aeroponics*, aquaponics**, hydroponics***, rainwater harvesting systems and even microturbines that allow the use of storm energy. But so far, no one has been able to make such innovations pay off. The hardest part is energy consumption. The VertiCorp (Vancouver) hydroponic system, which made a lot of noise in the scientific community, which was named the Discovery of the Year 2012 by TIME magazine, crashed because. consumed too much electricity. “There are a lot of lies and empty promises in this area,” says Harper, the son of a baker who grew up on a Texas farm. “This has led to a lot of wasted investment and the collapse of many companies large and small.”

Harper claims that thanks to the use of his developments, it will be possible to reduce electricity consumption by 80%. Unlike industrial agriculture technologies protected by patents, his project is open, and anyone can use his innovations. There is already a precedent for this, as was the case with MIT-designed laser cutters and XNUMXD printers, which the Institute manufactures and donates to labs around the world. “They created a production network that I see as a model for our vegetable growing movement,” says Harper.

… On a fine June afternoon, Harper is testing out his new setup. He is holding a piece of cardboard taken from a children’s toy set. In front of him is a box of coleslaw lit by blue and red LEDs. The landings are “monitored” by a motion-tracking video camera borrowed by Harper from the PlayStation. He covers the chamber with a cardboard sheet – the diodes become brighter. “We can take into account the weather data and create a diode lighting compensation algorithm,” says the scientist, “But the system will not be able to predict rainy or cloudy weather. We need a slightly more interactive environment.”  

Harper assembled such a model from aluminum slats and plexiglass panels – a kind of sterile operating room. Inside this glass block, taller than a man, 50 plants live, some with roots hanging down and automatically irrigated with nutrients.

By themselves, such methods are not unique: small greenhouse farms have been using them for several years. The innovation lies precisely in the use of diodes of blue and red light, which creates photosynthesis, as well as the level of control that Harper has achieved. The greenhouse is literally stuffed with various sensors that read atmospheric conditions and send data to a computer. “Over time, this greenhouse will become even more intelligent,” Harper assures.

It uses a system of labels given to each plant to track the growth of each plant. “To date, no one has done this,” says Harper. “There have been many false reports of such experiments, but none of them passed the test. There is now a lot of information in the scientific community about such studies, but no one knows for sure whether they were successful, and in general, whether they were actually carried out.

His goal is to create an on-demand vegetable production line, delivered like Instead of picking vegetables green (for example, as green tomatoes are harvested in the Netherlands in summer or Spain in winter – poor in nutrients and tasteless), then send them hundreds of kilometers, gas them to give the appearance of ripeness – you can order your tomatoes here too but get really ripe and fresh, from the garden, and almost on the next street. “Delivery will be prompt,” says Harper. “No flavor or nutrient loss in the process!”

To date, Harper’s biggest unsolved problem is with light sources. It uses both sunlight from a window and internet-controlled LEDs made by the Swiss startup Heliospectra. If you place vegetable plantations on office buildings, as Harper suggests doing, then there will be enough energy from the Sun. “My plantings only use 10% of the light spectrum, the rest just warms the room – it’s like a greenhouse effect,” Harper explains. – So I have to cool the greenhouse on purpose, which requires a lot of energy and destroys self-sufficiency. But here’s a rhetorical question: how much does sunlight cost?

In traditional “solar” greenhouses, the doors have to be opened to cool the room and reduce the accumulated humidity – this is how uninvited guests – insects and fungi – get inside. Scientific teams at corporations such as Heliospectra and Philips believe that using the Sun is an outdated approach. In fact, the biggest scientific breakthrough in the field of agriculture is now being made by lighting companies. Heliospectra not only supplies lamps for greenhouses, but also conducts academic research in the field of methods for accelerating biomass growth, accelerating flowering and improving the taste of vegetables. NASA is using lamps they make in their experiment to modulate a “Martian space base” in Hawaii. Lighting here is created by panels with diodes, which have their own built-in computer. “You can send a signal to a plant asking how it feels, and in return it sends information about how much of the spectrum it uses and how it eats,” says Heliosphere co-leader Christopher Steele, from Gothenburg. “For example, blue light is not optimal for the growth of basil and adversely affects its flavor.” Also, the Sun cannot illuminate the vegetables perfectly evenly – this is due to the appearance of clouds and the rotation of the Earth. “We can grow vegetables without dark barrels and spots that look great and taste good,” adds CEO Stefan Hillberg.

Such lighting systems are sold at a price of 4400 pounds, which is not cheap at all, but the demand on the market is very high. Today, there are about 55 million lamps in greenhouses around the world. “Lamps have to be replaced every 1-5 years,” says Hillberg. “That’s a lot of money.”

Plants prefer diodes to sunlight. Since the diodes can be placed directly above the plant, it does not have to spend extra energy on creating stems, it grows clearly upwards and the leafy part is thicker. At GreenSenseFarms, the largest indoor vertical farm in the world, located 50 km from Chicago, as many as 7000 lamps are located in two lighting rooms. “Lettuce grown here is more flavorful and crispier,” says CEO Robert Colangelo. – We illuminate each bed with 10 lamps, we have 840 beds. We get 150 heads of lettuce from the garden every 30 days.”

The beds are arranged vertically on the farm and reach 7.6 m in height. The Green Sense farm uses the technology of the so-called “hydro-nutrient film”. In practice, this means that nutrient-rich water percolates through the “soil” – crushed coconut shells, which are used here instead of peat, because it is a renewable resource. “Because the beds are arranged vertically, the vegetables grow at least ten times thicker and yield 25 to 30 times more than in normal, horizontal conditions,” says Colangelo. “It’s good for the Earth because there’s no pesticide release, plus we’re using recycled water and recycled fertilizer.” “It uses much less energy (than conventional),” says Colangelo, speaking of his vegetable factory, created in conjunction with Philips, which is the largest on the planet.

Colangelo believes that soon the agricultural industry will develop in just two directions: first, large, open spaces planted with grains such as wheat and corn, which can be stored for months and slowly transported around the world – these farms are located far from cities . Secondly, vertical farms that will grow expensive, perishable vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers and greens. His farm, which opened in April this year, is expected to generate $2-3 million in annual turnover. Colangelo already sells his signature products to restaurants and the WholeFood distribution center (located just 30 minutes away), which delivers fresh vegetables to 48 stores in 8 US states.

“The next step is automation,” says Colangelo. Since the beds are arranged vertically, the plant’s director believes it will be possible to use robotics and sensors to determine which vegetables are ripe, harvest them, and replace them with new seedlings. “It will be like Detroit with its automated factories where robots assemble cars. Cars and trucks are assembled from parts ordered by dealers, not mass-produced. We will call this “growing to order”. We will pick vegetables when the store needs them.”

An even more incredible innovation in the field of agriculture is “shipping container farms”. They are vertical growing boxes equipped with a heating system, irrigation and lighting with diode lamps. These containers, easy to transport and store, can be stacked four on top of each other and placed right outside stores and restaurants to provide them with fresh vegetables.

Several companies have already filled this niche. Florida-based Growtainer is a company that produces both entire farms and on-site solutions for restaurants and schools (where they are used as visual aids in biology). “I put a million dollars into this,” says Grotainer CEO Glen Berman, who has led orchid growers in Florida, Thailand, and Vietnam for 40 years and is now the largest distributor of live plants in the US and Europe. “We have perfected the irrigation and lighting systems,” he says. “We grow better than nature itself.”

Already, he has dozens of distribution centers, many of which work according to the “owner-consumer” system: they sell you a container, and you grow vegetables yourself. Berman’s website even claims that these containers are excellent “live advertising” on which logos and other information can be placed. Other companies work on a different principle – they sell containers with their own logo, in which vegetables are already growing. Unfortunately, while both schemes are expensive for the consumer.

“Micro farms have a reverse ROI per area,” says Paul Lightfoot, CEO of Bright Farms. Bright Farms produces small greenhouses that can be placed next to the supermarket, thus reducing the time and cost of delivery. “If you need to heat a room, it’s cheaper to heat ten square kilometers than a hundred meters.”

Some agricultural innovators are not from academia but from business. So is Bright Farms, which was based on the 2007 non-profit project ScienceBarge, a prototype of an innovative urban farm that was anchored in the Hudson River (New York). It was then that supermarkets around the world noticed an increasing demand for fresh, locally grown vegetables.

Due to the fact that 98% of lettuce sold in US supermarkets is grown in California in the summer and in Arizona in the winter, its cost (which includes the cost of water, which is expensive in the west of the country) is relatively high. In Pennsylvania, Bright Farms signed a contract with a local supermarket, received a tax credit for creating jobs in the region, and bought a 120-hectare farm. The farm, which uses a rooftop rainwater system and vertical configurations like Saleb Harper’s, sells $2 million worth of its own branded greens annually to supermarkets in New York and nearby Philadelphia.

“We offer an alternative to the more expensive, not-so-fresh West Coast greens,” Lightfoot says. – Perishable greens are very expensive to transport across the country. So this is our opportunity to introduce a better, fresher product. We do not have to spend money on long distance shipping. Our core values ​​lie outside the realm of technology. Our innovation is the business model itself. We are ready to implement any technology that will allow us to achieve results.”

Lightfoot believes that container farms will never be able to gain a foothold in large supermarkets because of the lack of payback. “There are some real niches, like expensive greens for select restaurants,” Lightfoot says. “But it won’t work at the speeds I’m working with. Although such containers can, for example, be thrown into the military base of the marines in Afghanistan.”

Still, innovations in agriculture bring fame and income. This becomes apparent when you look at the farm, located 33 meters under the streets of North Capham (London area). Here, in a former World War I air raid shelter, entrepreneur Stephen Dring and partners have raised £1 million to convert unclaimed urban space to create cutting-edge farming that is sustainable and profitable, and successfully grows lettuce and other greens.

His company, ZeroCarbonFood (ZCF, Zero Emission Food), grows greens in vertical racks using a “tide” system: water washes over the growing greens and is then collected (fortified with nutrients) to be reused. The greenery is planted in artificial soil made from recycled carpets from the Olympic Village in Stratford. The electricity used for lighting comes from small micro-hydroelectric turbines. “We have a lot of rain in London,” says Dring. “So we put turbines in the rainwater runoff system, and they feed us energy.” Dring is also working on solving one of the biggest problems with vertical growing: heat storage. “We’re exploring how heat can be removed and turned into electricity, and how carbon dioxide can be used – it acts like steroids on plants.”

In eastern Japan, which was hit hard by the 2001 earthquake and tsunami, a well-known plant specialist turned a former Sony semiconductor factory into the world’s second-largest indoor farm. With an area of ​​2300 m2, the farm is lit with 17500 low-energy electrodes (manufactured by General Electric), and produces 10000 heads of greens per day. The company behind the farm – Mirai (“Mirai” means “future” in Japanese) – is already working with GE engineers to set up a “growing factory” in Hong Kong and Russia. Shigeharu Shimamura, who is behind the creation of this project, formulated his plans for the future in this way: “Finally, we are ready to begin the industrialization of agriculture.”

There is no shortage of money in the agricultural sector of science right now, and this can be seen in the growing number of innovations, ranging from those designed for home use (there are a lot of interesting projects on Kickstarter, for example, Niwa, which allows you to grow tomatoes at home in a smartphone-controlled hydroponic plant), to global. Silicon Valley economic giant SVGPartners, for example, has joined forces with Forbes to host an international agricultural innovation conference next year. But the truth is that it will take a long time – a decade or more – for innovative agriculture to win a significant piece of the global food industry pie.

“What’s really important is that we have no transportation costs, no emissions and minimal resource consumption,” says Harper. Another interesting point that the scientist noted: one day we will be able to surpass the regional characteristics of growing vegetable products. Restaurants will grow vegetables to their taste, right outside, in special containers. By changing the light, the acid-base balance, the mineral composition of the water, or specifically limiting irrigation, they can control the taste of vegetables – say, make a salad sweeter. Gradually, this way you can create your own branded vegetables. “There will be no more ‘the best grapes grow here and there’,” says Harper. – “Will be” the best grapes are grown on this farm in Brooklyn. And the best chard comes from that farm in Brooklyn. This is amazing”.

Google is going to implement Harper’s findings and his microfarm design in the cafeteria of their Mountain View headquarters to feed employees fresh, healthy food. He was also contacted by a cotton company asking if it was possible to grow cotton in such an innovative greenhouse (Harper is not sure – maybe it is possible). Harper’s project, the OpenAgProject, has attracted notable attention from academics and public companies in China, India, Central America, and the United Arab Emirates. And another partner closer to home, Michigan State University, is about to turn a former 4600-square-foot auto warehouse on the outskirts of Detroit into what will become the world’s largest “vertical vegetable factory.” “Where is the best place to understand automation, if not in Detroit? Harper asks. – And some still ask, “what is the new industrial revolution”? That’s what she is!”

* Aeroponics is the process of growing plants in the air without the use of soil, in which nutrients are delivered to the roots of plants in the form of an aerosol

** Aquaponics – high techa logical way of farming that combines aquaculture – growing aquatic animals and hydroponics – growing plants without soil.

***Hydroponics is a soilless way of growing plants. The plant has its root system not in the ground, but in a moist-air (water, well-aerated; solid, but moisture- and air-intensive and rather porous) medium, well saturated with minerals, due to special solutions. Such an environment contributes to good oxygenation of the rhizomes of the plant.

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