“Food is the best when made with fresh and in-season vegetables and crops”, this is something I hear my grandmother say all the time. She went through the cultural revolution in China during the late 60s and was a part of the “Down to the Countryside movement” where she farmed and ate her own harvest. Therefore, living in a city now, she always complained that when no one is growing their own food anymore, all the vegetables are transported miles before reaching someone’s dinner table and it just doesn’t taste the same. But recent technological innovations, like The plantCube and Niwa, that uses hydroponics, the cultivation of plants in nutrient-enriched water is disrupting traditional farming and what people think about food. They may allow each and everyone of us to start growing our own crops and vegetables. Farm-to-table is then only as far as the kitchen goes.
The plantCube is about the size of a fridge but it is more like an indoor greenhouse that allows you to plant all year round, independent of the climate. Two horizontal shelves contain the water tank and pods to grow vegetables. The plantCube also leverages the smartphone and the Internet of things to monitor plant growth and control the temperature, water and light settings for a perfect growing environment. This utilizes the concept of vertical farming instead of having everything grow on land. Vertical farming is one solution to provide sustainable food in the generation of rapid urbanization and increase in population.
I had the opportunity to interview Keith Soster, the Director of Student Engagement and Sustainability at Michigan Dining. I asked him the feasibility of hydroponics and vertical farming technologies and the possibility of exploring this technology in the UM Campus Farm
Through talking Keith, I also learned about Freight Farming and he showed me this video. Keith also told me that there is an actively used hydroponic garden in Silvio’s Organic, an Italian restaurant here in Ann Arbor.
I decided to go take a look. The hydroponics in Silvio’s grows herbs for their cocktails and pizzas. Silvio, the owner told me that,” this requires little effort, just making sure that the water pipes are not covered by the roots from now and then”. They currently grow basil and mint, used in their kitchen and he is constantly trying to grow different things. As Silvio was showing me the pods, he just plucked a stem of basil and said that, “It is so easy to clone a plant, I just place them in an empty pod and wait for about 5-7days then roots will start growing” This…I am amazed. (Silvio did not want to be recorded, thus I could not get an audio file). Although Silvio’s currently does not use Smartphone apps to monitor the growth but this demonstrates that the vertical farming and hydroponics technologies is realistically feasible for everyone.
Niwa takes a similar approach as The plantCube but instead it is a mini greenhouse. It also has a smartphone app that monitors the plant growth. In addition, the app adjusts the greenhouse environment to specific plants a customer chooses to grow.
The development of hydroponics (aquaponics) was to develop a more sustainable agriculture system. Traditional farming is found to be responsible for about 1/3 of the climate change and about 25% of the carbon dioxide emissions come from agricultural sources, namely deforestation, use of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and burning of biomass. Conventional methods to prepare the land for agricultural purposes and fertilizer use account for 70% of nitrous-oxides. However, agriculture also depend strongly on the climate for a good harvest. Although the development in agricultural technology has increased the yield of crops year-by-year, changes in the carbon dioxide level, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather can significantly affect the yield. The first key message from the 2014 National Climate Assessment is that, “Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past 40 years and are projected to increase over the next 25 years. By mid-century and beyond, these impacts will be increasingly negative on most crops and livestock.” We must change the way we grow our food for this trend to end. The World’s population is expected to reach 10 Billion by 2050 with 80% urbanization. We will need landmass about 3 times as big as Brazil in order to feed everyone. So as the rapid increase in population and urbanization, one way to decrease food miles and carbon emissions related to food production may be through the individual indoor greenhouse. When someone is living on the 25th floor, soil and land are the furthest of things they have access to.
Through surveys from Field to Fork, it was found that “shoppers believe that local food is healthier, safer and more easily traceable”. Others may argue that some environmental conditions of certain geographic locations is not suitable for growing plants and thus the needs to have food grown in other places and transported to where it will be consumed. Eating is not longer just to have a full stomach but it is becoming a way to demonstrate personal values. (Full Infographic). Organizations are also taking steps in shortening the field-to-table and increasing transparency in the sources of food. For example, Jet blue started a farm next to JFK airport in New York.
Technologies like The plantCube, Freight Farms and Niwa are all disrupting the future of agriculture by providing a customizable, indoor garden that everyone can use to their own needs and it fulfills the mentality of “We Want What We Want Whenever We Want to”. The Internet of things and the high adoption rates of Smartphones enables ease of use and total control of the plant, allowing everyone to have the touch of a green thumb. This is also a step closer to decreasing the carbon footprint associated with food growing and transportation.
However, growing food may not be for everyone and definitely is not a solution for meat production. The new technologies is also fairly expensive as they are at the beginning stages of production and adoption rates of the self-growing greenhouses are still slow.
What do you think? Will you grow your own food soon?