Should we ditch the farm?

Cover image used with permission of Nemo’s Garden –

I’ve recently been finding a number of stories about alternative locations to grow food commercially and what advantages (and disadvantages) they hold in comparison to traditional farm growing.

The first story I came across came originates from London where a company called Growing Underground has recently started selling produce (namely micro greens), initially to restaurants but with plans to sell to the public. What is amazing about this company is that the produce, as can be guessed from the name, is all grown underground. Underneath Clapham, London, in a deserted bomb shelter, Growing Underground is using hydroponics, efficient LED’s, climate control and a lack of competing pests and weeds to produce their products with no need for pesticides or herbicides, reduced water usage and optimised growing conditions 24 hours per day. The result is precision growing of local produce.

A similar story comes out of Japan, a disused Sony factory to be precise. In it, lettuce is grown using LED’s designed to promote photosynthesis and growth throughout the plant, using minimal amounts of water and capturing water that evaporates for reuse.

Continuing with lettuce, NASA astronauts have recently grown lettuce on the International Space Station. The  Veggie system used blue, red and greed LED’s and a hydroponic system to grow the lettuce. An interesting issue hinted at that may have ramifications on future food, was that the green LED, which emits less light than the other two and really isn’t crucial to the food growth, was added to improve desirability in the appearance of the lettuce to the astronauts. Whilst the study was looking at growing food in controlled settings, similar to what is happening under London and in Japan, the appearance of food versus energy use reduction or perhaps increased production begs the question on what compromises may have to be made for the sake of commercialisation of products.

A more imaginative growing system is also taking place off the coast of Italy in Nemo’s Garden. Biospheres are sunk into the ocean. With some soil, seed, fertiliser and some water to start it off, plants can be grown inside the biospheres where climatic variations are limited by the properties of the surrounding water. Seawater evaporating onto the insides of the biosphere can be collected and used. Similar to the enclosed systems described above, absent accidental contamination, pest and competing vegetation problems are significantly reduced if not completely eliminated. The operators are bullish about the prospects of advantages but make appropriate concessions about some difficulties that may be encountered with growing different types of food, and have an idea to create fertiliser from algae (an idea being floated by the Soylent creators).

The scalability of these ideas is the biggest problem. The infrastructure that would be needed to allow these methods of production to feed large swathes of the population would be enormous. However, if the focus on finding ways to fight pests and weeds abated on the back of eliminating those problems by using enclosed environments, and the focus shifted to increasing produce per plant, could the infrastructure needs be reduced? In the climate of concern about transgenic crops, could one of the bugbears to its acceptance in the form of accidental release into the environment with deleterious effects be completely overcome; the concern about pesticide and herbicide use be avoided? If so, the infrastructure needs could reduce and the ability to grow food in inhospitable places and save desperate populations of people is, I think, a possibility.


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