A hyper modern farm, three meters under the ground, on the edge of a Somali refugee camp in Southern Kenya. It has the capacity to provide the 40.000 refugees with fresh, nutrient-packed vegetables, day in, day out. Powered by solar energy, and managed by the inhabitants of the camps themselves.
This is the way Gertjan Meeuws, managing director PlantLab, of one of the most advanced agricultural science labs in the world, sees the future of agriculture.
“Imagine being able to offer 20 grams of fresh vegetables to all those people, every day. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but what if those 20 grams contain all the nutrients they need? And that’s possible,” he says.
Meeuws explains that if such a facility in Kenya could benefit from free solar energy – for example, from a plant given by a generous donor – it would cost only 13 Euros or 16 USD a year cost of building and maintaining the farm. “That doesn’t seem like a lot to me” he says.
The three horticultural engineers and one technical engineer at the Dutch agricultural research facility PlantLab, have redefined agriculture; from a business that’s subject to the environment and figurative ‘weathergods’, to an exact science — where the ideal circumstances for a plant to develop optimally can be created in a lab.
When these ideal circumstances, or “plant paradise”, as the scientists call it themselves, are achieved, a plant can achieve 10 times more in terms of growth and nutrition than when being exposed to the wills of nature.
“We are used to grow food in the places where it happens to grown easily,” Meeuws says, pausing briefly at the word ‘easily’. “Growing things easily often still means messing with the water supply and liberally applying chemicals to make sure diseases and plagues stay at bay. We grow it in faraway places, ship it before it’s ready to be eaten, and then store it. Because demand and supply never match, in neither time nor place. “
The first thing anyone notices about a PlantLab facility: No sunlight. Those who think that the rays of the sun are the best thing that can happen to a plant, need to think again. The scientists have proven that it is actually the combination of red and blue LED light that accelerates the growing-speed of crops, regardless of how much water, CO2 or even wind speed the plant is experiencing.
“We always imitated nature, but we never really asked the plant: If you had a say in this, what would you want?” Meeuws explains. “We call this the emancipation of the plant.”
The surprising preference of plants for purple artificial light opens up a world of possibilities for growing crops indoors or even under ground, where light, water, temperature, CO2 levels and wind speed can be controlled.
Suddenly, high-output agriculture becomes possible in places where nature would never allow us to grown, according to Meeuws. “Siberia, Africa, China, India-places where the demand for food is in sharp contrast with the availability of water and knowledge,” he illustrates.
Julien Custot, Facilitator of the Food for the Cities initiative of the Food and Agricuture organization (FAO) says that Urban and peri-urban agriculture, including high-tech technologies like Plant Lab, are part of the solution towards food security. “In many circumstances, UPA can help fill the gaps rising from lack of resources.” he says.
Eliminating natural sub-conditions would allow farmers to grow around the clock, 365 days a year. “There are 8760 hours in a year,'' Meeuws explains.Because of the seasons and other sub-optimalities most farmers in countries like the Netherlands or any other country along the same perimeter only harvest one cycle a year.
This means most farmers only really utilize 1000 hours out of those 8760. And even that number gets cut down because of the simple fact that there is no light at night. It doesn’t leave us with a lot of growing hours. And in the hours we can use, the circumstances are never ideal.
“What we do is put all those 8760 hours back into a year as growing hours,” Meeuws said. “We strive to make everything connect, light, CO2, temperate of the leaves, the roots.”
Farming indoors poses another, increasingly important, advantage: It saves water. The system is 100% closed, so the water that is unused by the plant does not disappear into the atmosphere like it does on traditional farms. Instead, it is collected and reused by the plant, saving more than 90% in water usage, according to Meeuws.
“If you want to feed the 9 million people that will be on earth in 20 or 30 years, without constant competition of a water source for people, crops or nature, you have to develop a smarter way of agriculture,” he says.
The United Nations Environmental Programme released a report in 2011 that projected that in 2025, 1/8 people would be living in a country or region with an absolute water scarcity.
Courtesy of PlantLab
The purple illuminated crops might look like an experiment from outer space, but Plant Lab doesn’t genetically modify their crops or use synthetic chemicals. Although Meeuws doesn’t perceive GMO as a solely negative thing. “If you want to feed 9 billion people in a way that isn’t harmful and doesn’t need a lot of water or chemicals, you are going to have to open your mind to new technologies.” he says.”
Traditional forms of agriculture might be able to feed all those people, but only with drastic measures. Full occupations of agriculturally suitable soil will force farmers to look into less desirable spots to farm their crops. The opposite of “plant paradise” will make plant increasingly more vulnerable for pests and plagues, which will need to be combated with chemicals.
The FAO says it promoted sustainable diets, which relies on and supports consumption of locally produced food. “Because of close linkages between producers and consumers, UPA provides fresh and nutritious food.” Julien Custot says. “It is particularly important as, all over the world, there is a need to address the effects of changing consumption patterns that goes along with the development of obesity and other non -communicable diseases.”
A 90% reduction of water use; the possibility to grow anything, anywhere, 24/7; pesticide-free farming; and – according to Meeuws – very tasty crops. The question is why we don’t have a PlantLab facility in every country in the world already, or at least in the places where we need them the most.
Unknown, unloved, so it seems.
“Throughout history, technology has been contributing towards food and nutrition security all along in many ways, but at the same time it could be harmful,” says FAO’s Julien Custot. “Each technology needs to be assessed with great care to understand the technical benefits as well as economic and environmental risks.”
However, Gertjan Meeuws think that acceptance for mathematic agriculture will come over time. “With computers, mobile phones, and the Intensive Care unit of a hospital, we feel that technological advancement in combination with tradition is completely normal.” Meeuws explains. “But as soon as we apply this to food, it becomes scary.”
And although the giants in the food-industry have a bad reputation, most of us rely on the likes of Tesco, Carrefour, Wall-mart and Unilever for most of our daily products. And initiatives like PlantLab, dwarfed by comparison with the big companies, need to team up with a giant to gain the “money, momentum and mass” need to implement the PlantLab idea on a large scale.
“The transition from horse-and-buggy to the motorized automobile wasn’t easy either. Or the first commercial airplane, for example.” Meeuws elaborates. “Pioneers like [Steve] Jobs, [Bill] Gates of Richard Branson, they are the kind of people who will say:”Enough with the horse and buggy, let’s get into some new technology.””
“The money, mass and momentum we need could very well come from someone in the existing food-supply chain, those who currently grow or sell food. But it’s also possible that they don’t want to do that because it’s all so different.” Meeuws says.
“And maybe there is someone like Richard Branson who stands up and says ‘I’m going to start Virgin Foods. From now on we’re going to do things different. And we’re starting in Ethiopia’”