High-Tech Greenhouses Could Be The Future Of Agriculture.
Source: Jordan Strickler - Forbes
...the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” Since that time, their farmers have reduced the dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90% while eliminating the use of chemical pesticides on plants with the use of greenhouses.
Wageningen University and Research (WUR) are the primary architects of high-tech greenhouse technology, working 50 miles southeast of Amsterdam. The university is akin to Silicone Valley and is considered the top agricultural research institution in the world.
A study by the school found that the advantages of protected cultivation compared to outdoor production of vegetables have a mostly better product quality with higher input efficiencies of water, nutrients and crop protection agents (physical consumption related to level of yield). Moreover, protected cultivation is less dependent on the climate factor and ensures the delivery of products in time. The study estimates that greenhouse horticulture establishments will provide 56.5-58.5 million hours of employment, of which more than 90% is for cultivation labor.
“In most cases, plants are grown not in soil, but in a substrate (e.g. rockwool) in which with the water of the nutrients is supplied,” said Dr. Leo Marcelis, head of Horticulture and Product Physiology at WUR, in an email. “In greenhouses, the excess water and nutrients are collected and re-used. This prevents leakage of water and nutrients to the ground or surface water. In outdoor soil-based cultivation much more water and nutrients are needed and nutrients (like nitrogen, phosphorous) are leaking, (polluting) ground and surface water. Moreover, in this leaked water, there might be chemicals like crop protection agents.”
By 2040, Dutch horticulturists are hoping to become climate-neutral, by having a net zero carbon footprint. They will accomplish this through several means: controlling the energy and humidity the greenhouses use; using already-proven heat sources such as geothermal and solar heat; intensifying harvesting; watering more efficiently; preventing plague insects through the use of biological exterminators such as thrips, whitefly and plant louse where natural enemies of pests are introduced to control the pest which is often more effective than chemical control; and including smart windows allowing the glass to insulate in the winter, while cooling in the summer.
“Through technical innovations, we can generate a larger harvest using the same resources (as standard agriculture),” says Frank Kempkes, researcher of Energy and Greenhouse Climate at WUR, about the high-tech greenhouses’ more efficient harvesting. “This motivates horticulturalists to invest in improved greenhouses.”
Traditionally, for example, rows of strawberry plants are placed sufficiently far apart for a person to move in between them. WUR’s greenhouses, however, have an intelligent system that lifts rows of plants individually allowing the university to increase the number of plants by 20% in the same space.
Another example are the light-loving gerberas which are provided with light from LED lamps during the winter. Unlike the previous generation of lighting, LED’s do not generate as much heat, preventing the temperature from rising above desired levels. “This leads to a continuous harvest, allowing businesses to employ a stable and experienced workforce, which contributes to the quality of the product,” says Kempkes.
This increased performance of high-tech greenhouses versus traditional agriculture could end up being what tips the scale in the future of American agriculture.
“It's forcing this mechanism to bring production indoors,” explained Webb, who expects to grow approximately 40 million pounds of produce a year when the facility is fully up and running. “As far as efficiency, our 60-acre facility will do roughly what 1,500 or 1,800 acres of open field production in California can do. So, you’re going to have 1,800 acres of production on 16 acres of land and you get 30 times the yield per acre, while using 90% less water without the harsh chemicals...I think we're going to see a lot of people in the renewable energy space move over to agriculture as it becomes more infrastructure-and technology-focused and as we rebuild farms across America. A lot of those skill sets from developing and working on energy technology, translate really well over over to building these these facilities.”