Agriculture pioneers are looking to new technologies to boost food production, according to the latest two-part interview series on Innovative Agriculture from FutureFood 2050—a multi-year communications program from IFT highlighting the global visionaries who are leading the efforts in finding solutions to sustainably feed 9 billion-plus people by 2050.
Some of those new technologies include unmanned aerial drones and precision agriculture, aquaponics, hydroponic greenhouses, indoor farms, and seaweed cultivation.
Through the use of aerial drones, “we can now know which seeds were viable—and even what time they came out of the ground,” without ever stepping foot on the soil, says The Ohio State University agricultural engineer Scott Shearer in an article “Precision agriculture poised for growth” authored by Kirsten Weir. According to Shearer and his colleagues in the field, precision agriculture promises to boost yields, cut costs, reduce waste and even protect the environment by limiting the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. “Very seldom do you have a technology that meets the needs of consumers, the production sector and the environment, all at the same time,” says Shearer.
Freshwater biologist Charlie Price is a leading proponent of aquaponics—the marriage of hydroponics and aquaculture. Price’s latest brainchild is the United Kingdom’s first aquaponic solar greenhouse. Fish swim in tanks of water filtered by edible plants—mostly salad crops such as lettuces, herbs, chilies, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers—that draw nitrogen-rich byproducts from the water used by the fish. Fish guts and waste are then fed to soldier flies and worms, which in turn are used as food for a colony of hens next door. Waste from the birds comes back to the flies, to be turned into fish food. The 15-by 7-meter greenhouse should be able to produce 200–300 kg of fish a year, along with 30 kg of fruit and vegetables a week.
“We are potentially taking a natural system that’s evolved over millions of years and we are just copying it, rather than exploiting it. While it can be seen as complex, it is incredibly simple,” says Price in an article “Big potential for small-scale aquaponics” written by David Derbyshire.
Putting greenhouse farms near big city supermarkets should be the next local food movement, according to BrightFarms founder Paul Lightfoot in an article “A shorter path from farm to table” authored by Lisa Palmer. BrightFarms grows leafy greens, tomatoes and herbs in efficient hydroponic systems located in greenhouses in or near urban areas, and then sells directly to local supermarkets under long-term purchase agreements that feature fixed prices and minimum volume commitments. The greens grow in soil-less hydroponic systems. Water is supplied by rainfall and captured in a closed-loop system. “We’re 90% more efficient in our water use than irrigated fields in California or Arizona,” declares Lightfoot.
In spring 2014, Shigeharu Shimamura’s company Mirai collaborated with General Electric and construction giant Kajima Corp. to launch the largest all-LED indoor farm in the world in Tagajo, Japan, with 2,300 square meters of floor space. Using 17,500 lights that emit only the wavelengths most conducive to plant growth, the “pinkhouse” produces up to 10,000 heads of lettuce per day while slashing water and land use to a sliver of what conventional farms consume. The extensive use of specially designed LEDs that use less electricity than fluorescent lights, along with the resulting faster plant growth, means energy use is significantly lower than at most other indoor farms too.
“Seventy percent of the freshwater used by humans goes to agriculture. Indoor farms can reduce the water used for growing vegetables [since no water is lost to evaporation or seepage], so it can instead be used to grow grains. They have a very large role to play in effective resource allocation,” says Shimamura in an article “In the pink: Speeding up crop growth” written by Winifred Bird.
Charles Yarish, a marine scientist at the University of Connecticut, is researching how to create efficient seaweed farms in coastal waters in the United States. “We’re growing it [seaweed seedlings] at optimal temperature of light and also optimal light conditions. All this is done in 28 to 30 days. If we would wait and look at this in the real-world environment, it could take four or five months,” says Yarish in a podcast and article “Seaweed farming reaps trendy new ocean-borne ‘vegetables’” authored by Cynthia Graber. “You’re getting material that is obviously with a whole suite of unique carbohydrates … some seaweeds are also high in proteins. Some seaweeds are having the right types of lipids. You’re looking at a crop that could be sustainably grown in the environment. And while it’s growing in the environment, it’s doing ecosystem services, removing [excess] nutrients from coastal waters. And you can do this with minimal input of energy, which is also very important,” says Yarish.
To read these and other stories in the Innovative Agriculture series, please visit www.futurefood2050.com.