Shoots in the dark: Farming without sunlight

It's more efficient, reduces transport costs and won't fail because of the weather. Is farming without sunlight the future of food?

Sunlight. It is the foundation of life on Earth, the daily pacemaker of human existence and, with the exception of geothermal, the basis for all energy consumed on our little marble. Without it, Earth would be cold, dark, and unrecognisable.

Light's contribution to food is particularly important. Crop plants use it to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars and oxygen, for eating and breathing respectively. It's our most precious chemical reaction but, as global population diverges from the planet's ability to feed it, one group of Dutch scientists thinks we need a new approach. This approach isn't to meddle with genes, or to plug extra fertiliser into nitrate-soaked soils. The Dutch group, called PlantLab, have scrapped sunlight altogether.

"The plants look black," says Gertjan Meeuws, one of the five-strong team. That's not because they're rotten or genetically engineered, it's because they are bathed solely in blue and red light – there is no green light in the PlantLab hanger for the plants to reflect.

The hanger looks like something a character in Blade Runner might have dreamt about. Huge sliding trays of leafy greens (blacks), are tended by an army of robotic arms, and given, according to Meeuws, precisely what they need to thrive. He and his team have been studying plants since 1989, working to better understand their needs and to make the growing process more efficient. They are scientists and engineers, not just businessmen.

"Growing in an open field or greenhouse is not enabling plants to maximise their potential," Meeuws says. "You have to look at our system as taking two steps at once. Firstly, we grow plants in totally controlled conditions – plant paradise as we call it. The second step is placing these nurseries right at the end of the supply chain, to produce around the corner from the consumer."

PlantLabs's controlled conditions are underpinned by some interesting physics. Plants are green because they reflect green light, meaning those specific wavelengths are not involved in the process of photosynthesis. If you tried to grow a tomato plant under a green light, it would die. In the process of reflection, the plant heats up. Like humans, plants have a mechanism for cooling down, but it costs energy which the plant would otherwise use to grow.

"Plants have a very intelligent way of cooling themselves," Meeuws explains. "They take up water through their roots and evaporate it through their leaves. Energy is needed for evaporation, and this energy is taken from the leaves, cooling the plant."

By giving the plants only blue and red light, PlantLab can avoid heating its plants up unnecessarily, leaving more energy for growth. The atmosphere in the underground hanger is completely controlled for the same reason – to give plants the ideal conditions for growth, rarely found in the real world.

Although there are technical kinks behind farming in the dark, the potential benefits are broad: more nutritious produce, eradicated air-miles, year- round access to fresh vegetables, in any environment on earth. "We have been talking to people in winter sport areas. In the seasons where those areas have the most guests, they have no real fresh salads. It's a very interesting idea to serve really fresh, just-picked salads right where the consumers are," Meeuws says.

Human convenience factors are important, but not fundamental. Water is fundamental, and it's one resource that PlantLab's vertical farm does a very good job of conserving. Meeuws says that PlantLab's system uses 90 per cent less water than conventional open-field growing. The only water which ever leaves the facility is in the form of plant matter for human consumption. The rest – run off and evaporation – is collected and fed back into the system.

"Water savings are probably the most important part of our work," Meeuws says. "Water will be more important in the future than energy."

Another benefit of growing indoors is the flexibility it allows for the grower. Dixon Despommier, a microbiologist from Columbia University and the blue-sky thinker behind the vertical farm, puts it: "Let's say you have a breakdown in your growing system. When is the next opportunity for an outdoor farmer? Next year. The opportunity for an indoor farmer is tomorrow."

This agility is down to the increased number of available growing hours for the indoor farmer. Meeuws gives a rough calculation: "In our climate, there are maybe 1,000 or 1,500 growing hours a year. When you go to the equator, they have a lot of sunlight, but it's so hot that the plants can't breathe properly. In our system we can give light to plants 24 hours a day, but it's usually 20 hours, to let them sleep."

Twenty hours a day, every day of the year amounts to 7,300 hours of growing time, a five-fold improvement over relying on natural light. Vertical farming comes with the bonus of easing the strain on diminishing agricultural real estate, perhaps even allowing for "re-wilding" of swathes of land previously dedicated to cucumbers.

But, as Kevin Frediani, puts it, "we're not there yet". Frediani is the man behind VertiCrop, a vertical farming experiment adjoined to Paignton Zoo in Devon, where he is the curator of plants and gardens. His project, which has run for three years, backs up PlantLab's numbers for water savings, which Frediani says can be pushed as low as 4-6 per cent of conventional use.

Energy use is usually the number one concern among vertical farming naysayers. Everyone knows the story of the tomatoes, grown in British greenhouses and polythene tunnels, which, due to the cost of heating, actually have a larger carbon footprint than those shipped more than a thousand miles from Spain. Similar concerns surround the idea of artificially lighting and heating acres of underground crops.

The financial and energetic costs are big, but new technologies can help. By growing the plants in an insulated environment, temperature is easier and cheaper to control; polythene tunnels and glasshouses are rubbish at keeping heat in or cold out.

A new generation of lightbulbs are answering the lighting question too. Humanity has been stuck on the glowing strip of metal passing an electric current since Edison made the idea a commercial reality in 1879. New light sources – LEDs, high-pressure sodium lamps and fluorescent bulbs – cost less to run, and in the case of LEDs can deliver the exact colour of light which PlantLab requires.

Technology aside, there is the issue of public perception. Another step "away from nature", further removing ourselves from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, might not be popular with some sectors of the green contingent, but Meeuws has an answer for this too. "We have to let technology come into our lives where it concerns food production. A cell phone is normal, intensive care in hospitals is normal, and accordingly technology will be normal in order to save our world by producing food in a smart way."

Frediani's VertiCrop is one of the best examples of that "smart way". If you head to dinosaur country, south-west England, you'll find Frediani tucked away in the centre of Paignton Zoo, surrounded by the whirring and dripping of the UK's first attempt at growing vertical crops.

Made from re-purposed manufacturing line equipment which was designed for making JCB engines, Frediani's farm consists of multiple stacks of shelves which rotate around the room, sharing the sun. While the system uses natural light rather than LEDs, Frediani says it has shown that vertical farming is viable.

"As a pilot project, what it's demonstrated is that food can be grown in urban areas that are higher density, and at a lower embedded energy than we currently do growing it far away from cities. If you can put your food supply into your packing house and put your packing house into your distribution centre, and pack all that into the building people are living in, there's got to be an advantage in that," he says.

He compares Paignton's VertiCrop pilot to the earliest cars: "You wouldn't want to drive at 4mph behind a man holding a red flag, but you might drive a new Mercedes on modern highways – and it's the same with this technology."

For the moment, he also has his doubts about LED-only growing. He points to a beautiful crisp lettuce as it trundles by on its carousel. "That red tinge only comes when you grow lettuce under the full spectrum of natural light," he says. He adds that light from current LEDs peters out after about 30cm, severely limiting what can be done in an all-LED set-up.

But technology and knowledge tend to improve, and one day we may know the exact absorption spectrum for each and every crop we grow. Within five years, Frediani sees LEDs becoming good enough and cheap enough to provide plants with all the light they need. His set-up is pretty good right now, even if not on a commercial scale. "Try a bit of rocket," he suggests. I nip a leaf off with my thumbnail and bite. It's hot and crisp, perfect. My mouth tingles, and we eat some more.

A lettuce that doesn't need to be washed

The concept of vertical farming has reached as far as Kyoto, Japan. There, a company called Nuvege – whose website is adorned by what appear to be elemental fairies – runs four stories of stacked vertical growing platforms. It's main product seems to be lettuce, which is a good crop for indoor farming as the entire photosynthetic surface can be eaten, making the operation more efficient. According to its website, Nuvege grows its lettuce without soil, resulting in zero pests or soil-borne contaminants.

Closer to home, a vertical farming project is under way in Manchester. Launched this summer by Dickson Despommier, Alpha Farm, which is a part of the Manchester International Festival, aims to be producing food by 2013.

Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth gamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game