Following his recent trip to the world’s largest indoor vertical farm in New Jersey, Telstra’s Chief Scientist Hugh Bradlow reflects on the technology’s potential and how it could play a role in ending world hunger.
Indoor farming is not exactly new – people have been using hothouses for horticulture for centuries. However, the foods we need to feed the world are still grown on large scale outdoor farms which need to contend with pests, drought, floods and diseases. While the Internet of Things (IoT) is already being used by farms to optimise the consumption of water and nutrients, as well as determining optimal planting and harvesting times, there is no controlling the vagaries of the weather or the onset of pestilence and plague.
The relatively recent advent of indoor farms creates a controlled environment which helps to overcome these disadvantages and can be significantly more productive for growing plants. According to AeroFarms, their newest facility in Newark, New Jersey is able to achieve a level of productivity per square foot that is 130 times greater than traditional field farms. These indoor farms are essentially production lines. Seeds are put into germination chambers which accelerate their sprouting, then placed in a special patented cloth growth medium in trays which are moved down a line where they are fed with water, nutrients and light produced by LED lamps. In the indoor environment you can run a much more intensive IoT, so everything is recorded – humidity, temperature, luminosity, growth (using cameras) – so that AeroFarms know exactly the conditions under which each plant was grown. This enables them to do things like tailor the taste of a lettuce, for example, to suit customer preference. At the end of the line the plants are harvested directly into the punnets in which they go to market.
Disease can be kept out of the indoor farm by running a clean room environment and pests are repelled using a range of clever technological innovations relating to the use of light and growing methods and HVAC filtration. All this means that, unlike an outdoor farm, no extraneous chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, etc) need to be used on the plants so that they do not need to be washed at the end of the line. Where it normally takes around 1-2 weeks to get produce to the consumer, urban farms only take around 2 days, so the food tastes fresher and crisper. Some supermarkets are even contemplating setting up indoor farms in the store itself.
In full production, AeroFarm’s Newark indoor farm will have the capacity to produce 2,500kg of baby leafy greens per day! That includes ‘superfoods’, like kale, which offer the maximum nutrient value per calorie of any food. So, even though in its early stages the focus of indoor farms today is on catering for consumer preference for taste and freshness, in time it is quite possible that indoor farming may be a mechanism that can be used to help end global starvation!
AeroFarms is a registered trade mark of Just Greens, LLC