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Monday, November 4, 2013

The new crop revolution: its red and blue, not green

Red is the colour of socialism representing the blood of the proletariat in their struggle against capitalism. Blue is the colour of conservatism after the concept of the blue ribbon, which signified high quality. When the ecological movement started as a political group in Germany in the late sixties, the obvious colour was green – the green of nature’s plains, forests and pastures. The reality is that plants are green because that is the fraction of white light (sunlight) that plants don’t want. They reflect back this unwanted light and that is the green of natural vegetation. In fact, plants only use the red and blue fractions of sunlight and thus are politically fully balanced! So, what would happen if instead of offering sunlight with an option to reflect green light, plants were given what they want, red and blue light? That is one of the pillars upon which a Dutch biotech company, Plantlab[1], is built. A second is their vision for plant agriculture in the future based on how global cities will dominate our planet.

According to a new report by the global consultancy company, McKinsey[2], The growth of the world’s population from its present level of 6-7 billion to 9 billion by 2050 will be dominated by urban growth. Every year, the world’s population expands by 65 million people, equivalent to 10 cities of Chicago or 5 Londons. At present, the top 600 cities in the world account for 65% of GDP growth and while that will remain so in 2025, the membership of this elite 600 cities will change, bringing in cities, which today are simply not household names and which will include over 130 completely new cities, 100 from China alone.

Traditionally, cities were fed from farms in their hinterland. Today, that hinterland stretches across continents. For example, Spanish tomatoes are major supplier of that food for Muscovites such that they are picked in Spain 5 days before they are shipped and sold in Moscow. The dream of Plant Labs is that the cities of the future will meet their vegetable and fruit needs through high throughput indoor farming. This will involve exposing plants to only red and green light in highly controlled climatic environments that can be managed on a minute-by-minute basis and which can be adjusted remotely, with one control center managing dozens of these plant production units. In addition to light efficiency, water efficiency is utmost in priority in this new vision of plant production. Traditional agriculture is a great waster of water and all the predictions of the future fragility of the food chain point to water as the weakest link.  Irrigation of agricultural crops has laid waste the great subterranean aquifers such as the Ogallala in the US or the above-ground water lakes such as the Aral sea in Central Asia, magnificently portrayed on Google Earth Time-lapse maps[3]. In the vegetable farm of the future, water efficiency is almost 100% with the only water loss being the water that exits the production unit inside the cells of the lettuce or tomato or whatever crop is grown.

From a consumer point of view, this system might have the added bonus that neither weed killers nor pesticides are needed, simply because the plants are incredibly healthy in this “plant-centric” environment. Plants grown in sunlight are weaker and need the use of the farmer by tillage or chemistry to protect the crops from weeds and pests. But not so for the plants that thrive on red and blue light and just-in-time technology to deliver the right nutrients for growth at the right temperature for every second of the day.

From a nutritional point of view, we need to look both at the potential of these new farms and backwards to the McKinsey Global Institute reports on cities. As regards the latter, the average value for any statistic hides some crucial data. For example, they point out that nationally, the number of children in China will fall over the next few decades. But in the new cities, there will be a growth of some 7 million new infants. Equally, the number of households will grow but the number of persons per household will fall. These demographic profiles will drive the nutritional needs of the cities of the future and by definition, the future world population. Returning to the plant production facilities, a daily supply of 200 grams of fruit and vegetable per head requires 1 square meter per person. Thus for 100,000 persons, we need ten floors of factory farming with 100 square meters of growing area per floor, a total of 100,000 square meters. By my calculations, the two main sports stadia in Dublin (The Aviva stadium and Croke Park) together could cover these daily needs of half the population of the city. In this vision, we could return to the era of agriculture in our hinterland and as Gertjan Meeuws CEO of Plantlab argues in his TEDx talk (available on their website), we could move from food miles to food steps. Of course any new technology poses new challenges and who is to say that a new plant virus could not enter such a system. But such biological disasters also happen in field agriculture such as that presently faced by the Californian citrus industry[4]. At least, in the indoor plant system, any infection in one unit can be destroyed without ant risk to another unit.

Feeding the world is a truly absorbing technological challenge and all technologies will be needed. Plant Labs look not only at mega multi-story production facilities. They are also thinking of this technology in supermarkets, in restaurants and even your own kitchen version growing crops such as herbs and condiments. The Dutch are ideally suited to lead man’s struggle with nature and water. Holland lies below sea level and the country relies totally on the strength of the Dutch dykes to keep it viable.

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