Growing More With Less: The Past, Present, and Future of Greenhouses (Part 3)
Vertical farming has become an extremely popular topic as of late throughout the agriculture, technology, and investment arenas. No company showcases this recent craze for vertical farming more than Jeff Bezos-backed San Francisco-based Plenty, which in 2017 amazed the world with a record shattering $200 million in Series B funding. Over on the East Coast, other vertical farming companies such as AeroFarms and Bowery have also been generating large amounts of investment buzz from prominent chefs, tech giants, and venture capitalists.
While vertical farming is currently at the center of attention, in the grand scheme of controlled environment agriculture it is still relatively small compared to the dominant industry: Greenhouse. In fact, almost all of the technologies that vertical farms now use to grow crops indoors, from hydroponic irrigation to smart sensors and automation, have been and continue to be developed by and for the greenhouse industry. How else did you think that the Netherlands is second only to the US in terms of total food exports.
Greenhouses have also been around for a lot longer than vertical farms—millennia in fact! They are therefore the perfect subject for this 3-part mini-series by Agritecture & Plug and Play that provides an overview of the greenhouse industry: past, present and future.
In Part 1 of this series we discussed the origins of greenhouses. In Part 2 we discussed the current state of the industry today. Now, let’s dive into our predictions for the future of the greenhouse industry.
The past and current situations about indoor farming in general have already signaled two important messages. First, there is logical reasoning to support the argument that indoor ag will become the norm and play a vital role to our current food landscape. It won’t be an easy journey, but the industry is growing and evolving at a fascinating speed. Second, technology advancements play a key role in helping the industry to continue to mature and reach a larger profitability.
As our global population continues to grow, and resources like land, water and labor become more restricted, indoor farming will be a dominant contributor for feeding global population just as important as the land-based production.
The future: hardware, software, & plant physiology
Currently innovation is steered by three main drivers: in-house development within companies, technology providers, and cross-industry pollination. New and upcoming companies have great potential to create innovative products. One such company, Sundrop, experimented with seawater greenhouse solutions which has been used to help cool greenhouses. When companies showcase how their innovative technology can be applied, other companies can either adapt or further develop these ideas. There are also technology providers who specialize in specific areas of agtech, like startup Iunu. Iunu is an industrial computer vision company that turns commercial greenhouses into precise, predictable, demand based manufacturers. Through cross-industry pollination, we can acquire existing technology from other industries for use in greenhouse application.
Energy costs—primarily associated with lighting—are of major significance in the operation of a greenhouse facility. Lighting is a critical component for growing plants in fully closed environments because it is the primary energy input used by plants for photosynthesis. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) were first adopted for indoor growing in the 1970s to supplement natural sunlight more efficiently than previously used incandescent bulbs. With the advancement of LED technology, the cost of lighting has dropped significantly over the last 10 years—specifically, LED lighting costs have halved, while their efficacy, or light energy, has more than doubled. We can expect costs to continue to drop as technology develops and this trend continues. Additionally, precise control of lighting can enable the discovery and dissemination of reproducible “light recipes” that are tailored to crops specifically grown indoors. These light recipes could be developed and used by farmers to manipulate how plants grow, what they taste like, and their nutrient composition.
New technologies and materials may soon make LEDs obsolete for indoor agriculture. One such technology is a laser-based illumination system developed by Oaesis. This laser-based system replaces traditional fluorescent or LED technologies that are energy intensive and require constant monitoring for maintenance purposes. A single source of a laser can potentially replace hundreds of fluorescent light tubes and LED lights. If laser lighting is capable of delivering high efficiency, high-quality lighting and low upfront costs, there is a likelihood that it will be the successor of LED lighting.
In addition to lighting, improvements related to materials can also help further efficiency. Companies like Soliculture, are paving the way for the new revolution of greenhouse materials. Their LUMO solar panel contains a low density of silicon photovoltaic (PV) strips arranged with space in between to allow light to transmit between the strips. A thin layer of luminescent material is adhered to the backside of the glass, enhancing light quality by converting green light to red light. Red light has the highest efficiency for photosynthesis in plants, and therefore this optimized light spectrum increases yield faster maturation rate, and has proven to be more disease resistance.
Artificial Intelligence is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. AI-powered tools are gaining popularity across several industries including agriculture. In the future, we can expect AI to be used in farming by means of automation and for predictive analytics.
Robots are increasingly replacing humans as we see more fully-automated farming operations. Robots help replace mundane tasks, such as seeding, weeding and harvesting. Startup Iron Ox uses robots every step of the way from seed to harvest.
This allows farmers to allocate resources elsewhere and focus on their overall production. Robotics also reduce labor costs while increasing efficiency. Currently farming is facing a labor shortage from reasons ranging from immigration policy to just a lack of desire to work in the industry. Robots can help fill in the gaps in missing labor.
AI and machine learning technologies are developed to give farmers more precise control of their growing operations. AgTech company, Autogrow, provides intelligent automation systems including pH sensors, irrigation, and climate control products. Both hardware and software are improving to become more analytical to help detect and solve problems many farmers face such as pest management, nutrient solution maintenance, and disease prevention.
Automation will likely become more feasible for farmers as AI technology improves and becomes less expensive. Cutting labor costs will allow product prices to decrease, making the demand for local food more accessible.
While improved environmental control and farming practices will undoubtedly lead to greater crop yields, biological alterations to crops can more specifically tailor them to their growing environments and the needs of their consumers. Indoor growing environments and processing facilities reduce the need for plant traits which provide stability in the face of environmental fluctuations, pests, pathogens, and post-harvest injury. New plant breeding techniques and genome-editing technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 can be used to promote new plant traits which focus on rapid plant growth, performance in low-light environments, plant stature, nutrition, and flavor. Coupling heightened environmental control with biological control also opens the door for variable gene expression under different growing conditions. This could lead to crop varieties that are distinct from their outdoor counterparts for new culinary applications and create unique markets for produce grown indoors.
With the rise of abundant tech providers and cross-disciplinary innovators, we can expect collaboration and knowledge sharing to become more common. In addition to yielding more effective indoor growing technologies, collaboration may also substantiate partnerships between companies which reduce their ecological footprints. For instance, co-locating greenhouses with industrial power plants can divert carbon dioxide and heat—byproducts of combustion—from the atmosphere to crops for photosynthesis enhancement and climate control. Furthermore, composted food waste may be diverted from landfills to fertilize crops in soil-based greenhouses. In the other direction, transparent solar panels may enable greenhouses to become net producers of energy to supply nearby buildings without sacrificing crop performance.
New technologies and ideas will better integrate greenhouses with the world around them, helping urban and industrial communities become more productive and sustainable.
Innovation in technology and practice will be the key drivers of new developments in indoor greenhouse farming. While these developments will be diverse and multidimensional, their effects will certainly be focused on improvements to the potential scale, efficiency, and quality of food of indoor agriculture. Following the greenhouse’s historical trajectory, it is safe to assume its relevance to global food systems will continue to expand as we progress into the future.