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Cultivating cucumbers where the sun don't shine

Cultivating cucumbers where the sun don't shine

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A Dutch company is tuning LEDs to grow stacks of fruit and vegetables indoors, sans sunlight. The vertical farming breakthrough could help feed billions and cut transport and land use.

There’s an old adage in the retail industry: “pile it high, sell it low.”

The same mantra may one day apply to the agricultural world, where “vertical farming” researchers are certainly advancing the “high” part of the equation. Horticulturalists around the world are developing techniques for growing crops on floor upon floor inside agricultural towers.

The concept, developed in the late 1990s by Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier, addresses the problem of how to feed a growing global population that the UN says will surge from nearly 7 billion today to 9.3 billion by 2050, and have limited land on which to grow food.

Not only does vertical farming save land, but it also slashes the CO2 emitted in transporting food, because it allows farmers to grow crops near the point of consumption.

But among the current shortcomings, the energy required to power indoor lights can wipe out those CO2 gains.

Now Dutch horticultural research company PlantLab thinks it has an answer. Inside a sunless, hangar-like facility in the southern city of Den Bosch, PlantLab has mounted energy-efficient LED lights over racks and rows of various vegetable and herb plants including tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, zucchinis, radishes, peppers, peas, cresses, lettuces, tulips and orchids. Since each crop prefers a certain spectrum of light frequency, PlantLab tunes the LEDs to just the right wavelength that a particular vegetable prefers. (LEDs are current-driven semiconductors that lend themselves well to tuning). That holds the promise of adding a tremendous variety of crops in regions where nature today limits the choices.

There’s a preponderance of blue and red LEDs inside PlantLab, giving the place the look of a plant disco. And PlantLab, in partnership with another research firm, Imtech, claims the lights stimulate an impressive botanical dance as they nurture two-to-three times the growth compared to greenhouses.

PlantLab also deploys infra red light, relative humidity, air temperature, root and substrate temperature, and airflow to achieve what managing partner Marcel Kers calls "plant paradise." The environment has so far eliminated the need for pesticides, he says.

The company envisions supermarkets growing produce under the store and delivering it straight from LED beds to the customer counter. That would cut out both long haul transport and local deliveries.

PlantLab has made laudable strides toward piling the crops high. But the research and development isn’t cheap, nor is the energy efficient LED lighting. The world awaits the company’s ability to sell low.

Note: The idea for this story came on a clean technology tour of Amsterdam partially funded by the Dutch government.

Photo: PlantLab

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure