The Rise of Indoor Cropping
It's commonly accepted that record food prices were one of the key triggers for the Arab Spring. This year in Zimbabwe, critical levels of crop failure put over two million people at risk of chronic malnutrition. Even a prosperous state like Singapore, which imports over 90 percent of its produce, is starkly aware of its food security risks. Water scarcity, erratic weather conditions and a burgeoning global population, with rising expectations of living standards and an increasingly carnivorous diet, is driving pressure across the food chain. As food producers look for ways to boost productivity and safeguard their crops from an unpredictable climate, has the time come to take agriculture indoors?
Fly over Holland and you'll find yourself looking down on a sea of glass; here, hydroponic greenhouses account for 50 percent of the value of all fruit and vegetables produced in the country — a practical response to soil depletion, disease and salinization. Making plants less vulnerable to soil degradation and unpredictable weather is just one advantage of indoor cropping; it also offers horticulturalists more control over the conditions, allowing them to drive efficiency, reduce waste and expand production beyond seasons. The potential environmental benefits of this are significant: the assumption that the greenest farming is done outdoors needs to be challenged.
The variety of cultivation and irrigation technologies available — as well as ways to harvest key resources, from water to light — makes indoor cropping a diverse practice. While it's not a given that every indoor project will be high tech, the enclosed environment lends itself well to bio-control technologies. The exceedingly efficient LED lighting new to the market, for example, allows for year round food production in previously unsuitable climates. Horticultural business consultant John Hall also points out that this kind of technology opens up opportunities to those who want to grow veg, specialist herbs and young plants.
Trials sponsored by Dutch company Philips Lighting and British company CambridgeHOK in Yorkshire explored the potential benefits that LED technology could have for the future of vertical farming: enhanced yield was one of them. Where a normal lettuce grower might produce five crops a year, this system can produce 15, according to Graham Ward, CEO of Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC), where the LED4CROPS trials took place. Martin McPherson, Science Director at STC, predicts that as this technology is developed it will offer increasingly good returns on investment.
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