Monday, April 22, 2024

When Agriculture No Longer Suffers From The Volatilities of Nature…

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Healthy: You might wonder if vegetables grown indoors, devoid of natural sunshine, will be as nutritious as natural field-grown vegetables. In a media report, Caleb Harper of MIT Media Lab, who drives their CityFARM project, argued: “You would think, if it doesn’t have sunlight, it can’t possibly be nutritious, but the reality is that plants only harvest 10 per cent of the sun’s rays, which we can recreate in the lab. There is absolutely no nutritional difference between plants grown in sunlight and under an LED.” Robert Colangelo, president and founder of Green Sense Farms goes a step further and claims that their produce is better than traditionally grown veggies. He said, “Anybody who comes into this farm sees the high level of cleanliness here, and when they eat right off the rack they can see the precise nature in which this has been grown.”

And beneficial in many more ways: Vertical farming can also have less obvious social benefits. Like in the case of Vertical Harvest, a social organisation based in Jackson, Wyoming, vertical farming can be a source of livelihood for physically-challenged people and other less privileged individuals. We get healthy food, they get to live a dignified life, and the organisation gets tax benefits! It is a fabulous win-win.

Tech, from light to air quality

Vertical farming does not necessarily have to be large scale, and it does not have to use technology either. Clover Organic’s idea of a ‘farm in a basket’, for example, enables a family to self-sufficiently grow its own vegetables in a 500 sq ft area. Clover Organic’s solutions are all-natural and rely on natural sunshine. Sanjay Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Clover Organic, a pioneer in vertical farming in India, says that they follow a natural model of vertical farming. “We do not use any electricity or gadgetry in our model of vertical farming. Our model is natural. As far as economics go, our cost is very nominal. It works out to about Rs. 800 per 250-litre tank. One can use as many such tanks as the space he might have on his terrace or balcony. We only use natural sunshine. In the areas of the tank where sunshine cannot reach directly, we grow shade-loving crops like capsicum, strawberry etc,” he says.

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That said, a large, commercial-level deployment will surely have to be tech-based. For starters, there are the technologies that go into controlling the environment, like LED lighting, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) technologies, and sensors and software to control the system.

Figuring the light recipe: LED lighting solutions for vertical farming are known by different names: grow lighting, horticultural lighting, engineered lighting etc. Several vertical farming pioneers across the world like New Jersey based Aerofarms, Portage based Green Sense Farms, Netherlands based Deliscious, etc, are using LED lights to provide the plants with exactly the spectrum, intensity and frequency they need for photosynthesis in the most energy-efficient way possible. Aerofarms claims that such a lighting system helps them to control everything from size, shape, texture and colour to flavour and nutritional value of the produce in an extremely productive way. Philips is one of the major players in researching and providing lighting solutions for vertical farming. The company’s GrowWise Center in the Netherlands has eight climate-controlled rooms, each equipped with four multi-layer systems and one germination room. Equipped with 540 GreenPower LED production modules and 6624 GreenPower LED research modules, the centre helps to find the right ‘light recipe’ for different crops. One of the main aspects of their research and development is to make such lighting as energy-efficient as possible.

Conditioning the air to grow veggies even in Alaska: The HVAC system is another critical aspect of a vertical farm. With smart, energy efficient, large area HVAC systems like the one developed by Japanese vertical farming organisation Spread, it becomes possible to grow veggies anywhere in the world, by maintaining the humidity and temperature within a range that is optimal for photosynthesis.

Sensors, data and intelligence: Another popular aspect of tech deployment in a vertical farm is the sensor network used to automatically monitor nutrient levels in the water or air, and replenish it on a need basis. Further, other environmental aspects are also constantly monitored and the data is studied remotely using predictive analysis to control the systems and to minimise the risks associated with traditional agriculture. According to a media report, Aerofarms’ growing trays collect 30,000 data points on parameters like temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels. Data scientists from universities such as Harvard and MIT analyse this data in real-time using machine-learning software, to predict how future crops will grow and to optimise the growing algorithms of 250 different types of plants. Once the best way is figured out, it can be meticulously replicated every time in the controlled environment!

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