The Great Indoors

The Great Indoors

The Great Indoors

You’ve heard of recipes for food, but have you heard of a grow recipe? That’s exactly what Philips Grow Wise is developing with partners such as Grow Up Urban Farms in London. Together they are pioneering city farming in the U.K.

By Pithrika Nair.

Any Smart City vision is incomplete without smart food. The current world population of 7.3 billion is projected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050. Of that population 7.7 billion (80 per cent) are expected to live in cities. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also estimates that farmers will have to produce 70 per cent more food by 2050 to meet the needs of these 9.7 billion. Notwithstanding the fact that the quantity of food produced isn’t a safeguard against world hunger (we currently produce enough food to feed the world’s population, but 795 million people still go hungry due to poverty), there is a pressing need to produce more food, with greater efficiency, and a lower carbon footprint.

A potential answer to the problem of food production is urban indoor agriculture, the growing of crops in a building within or near a city, using artificial light to stimulate photosynthesis. The controlled system helps growers reduce or eliminate pesticides and other chemicals, and its proximity to the end consumer ensures fresher produce with greatly reduced food miles. The quality of the solution is driven by how lighting, climate control, software controls, sensoring and logistics work together.

Kate Hofman and Tom Webster founded Grow Up Urban Farms in 2013 as London’s first commercial urban farm. Housed inside an industrial warehouse, the farm combines aquaculture (fish farming), with hydroponics, the practice of growing plants in a nutrient solution with no soil. This is a symbiotic system with one product, the fish, providing fertilizer for the second product, the plants.

With a year round growing season, the 6,000 sq. foot urban farm produces 20,000 kg of salad greens grown in vertically stacked trays under Philips LED lighting. Researchers at Philips GrowWise Center have developed precise ‘growth recipes’ for each product. Just like a cooking recipe, a growth recipe includes an ingredients list and a method, and Philips provides extensive support in both areas to ensure the end result meets the customers’ exact needs.

The ingredients list is the lighting system itself: the type and number of LEDs and where to place them to deliver the optimal lighting conditions and coverage for the plant type and greenhouse set-up, and the growth system.

The full package includes the technology hardware such as racks and automation and software like climate (temperature, humidity, CO2) as well as plant material, fertilizers and growth media. A ‘growth recipe’ helps farmers to optimise their farm systems for productivity.

According to Gus van der Feltz, director of City Farming at Philips, “Indoor growing systems based on LED lighting can maximise plant photosynthesis, for the most delicious and nutritious vegetables grown in a sustainable manner. Growing crops vertically makes it possible to pack more plants per acre, in a much faster way, than would be possible with a field farm, which means more harvests per year. With little waste, no agricultural run-off and more than 90 per cent reduction in the water used to grow clean and healthy food.”

This hyper-controlled growing environment enables better, faster, tastier, cleaner plants through light recipes, in clean air with no pesticides or crop protection.

At the Philips GrowWise research facility in Eindhoven, growers and plant specialists trial a variety of crops under different lighting and climate conditions for a variety of purposes.

“At Philips, we are teaming up with partners to bring this new innovation to the next level,” says Gus van der Feltz. “We are also looking forward to discovering what else can be achieved through this new form of high-tech horticulture. We have already seen that we can increase the amount of vitamin C in tomatoes, colour lettuce, and affect the taste and smell of basil through the smart use of LED light and growth recipes. And it’s possible to grow different varieties indoors. So we certainly have an interesting future ahead of us.”

Does this mean we’ve found the solution to the population-food-location quandary? Not yet. Although the potential unlocked by the LED technology is promising, urban indoor farming still faces several challenges before it starts producing significant, sustainable, and affordable food on a large scale.

A critic of indoor growing systems, Louis D. Albright, programme director of Controlled Environment Agriculture at Cornell University, estimates the high amount of energy required to provide 100 per cent of the light and heat needed doesn’t result in environmental benefits. He found one kilo of tomatoes farmed indoors produces 11-13 kg of CO2 (2-4 kg CO2 in production and 9kg of CO2 in lighting), while tomatoes farmed and transported from California to New York produced 0.6 kg of CO2 (0.3 Kg of CO2 in Production + 0.3 Kg of CO2 in Transport).

What if that energy came from renewable sources? Bruce Bugbee, director of the Plants, Soils & Climate department at Utah State University says, “If we’re going to use solar panels, we’d need 5.4 acres of solar panels to provide 1 acre of sunlight equivalent.”

Based on the current technology and energy options, it’s high end, expensive crops such as herbs and microgreens that offer the best business options for indoor farming. These are the limitations Jeremy Rifkin pointed out (in his presentation to the government of Catalunya), in attempting to plug smart city solutions into a fossil fuel infrastructure.

In an ideal future, a digitised internet of energy would be able to provide renewable energy at the price and efficiency needed to make indoor urban agriculture a viable production option.

The area where high efficiency agricultural LEDS such as those developed at Philips Grow Wise are able to have the most significant impact is as supplementary lighting in greenhouses.

Brookberries Venlo BV grows and supplies strawberries in Venlo, Netherlands. It previously used incandescent lamps to elongate the strawberry plant and encourage growth, but the sale of many types of incandescent lights was banned in the EU from 1 September 2012.

Owners Marcel Dings and Peter van den Eertwegh used the opportunity to trial different technology options, deciding finally to deploy the Philips GreenPower LED flowering lamp on their farms. This has resulted in a staggering 88 per cent reduction in their energy consumption as well as the ability to start harvesting earlier in the year (February and March, rather than in May).

Improved temperature control is also a big plus for Dutch tomato grower Jami. Its grow recipe combines overhead high-pressure sodium lamps with LED lamps hung among the crop to illuminate the lower parts of the plant. The LED lamps can be placed close to the plants without damaging them but also add a little bit of warmth – which the tomato plants thrive on.

Through the placement and monitoring of the LEDs the temperature in the greenhouse is carefully controlled, lengthening the growing season into an all year production. Jami has seen its energy bills fall by 10 per cent, while yields have risen by 35 per cent. Thus, although its energy consumption is high, urban agriculture also benefits greatly from increased control and efficiency.

Citizens within the smart city communities have the chance to gain an understanding and sense of connection with their food, as well as the chance to eat high quality products which have been naturally optimized through light control. Hofman from Grow Up Urban Farm says, “With the lighting we get really good color across the leaf, really good shape, and a really strong and solid product. Everything is delivered to local customers within 12 hours after harvest.”

Twelve hours from harvest to your plate in the heart of London is a significant step in the direction of smart, sustainable food.

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