Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Greenhouse of the Future


                                                   Comments due by Oct. 26, 2014
Are we grasping at straws or would the PPU, plant production unit, agricultural process prove to be significant ? One thing is clear though, if the global population is to add a  few billion more hungry mouths to the global food table then we need to find new and different ways to provide nourishment. Can we do that ?
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– The challenge of ensuring adequate, nutrient-rich food for an expanding global population is a daunting one, especially given constraints on key resources like water and agricultural land. As it stands, the two leading approaches to enriching and enlarging the world’s food supply are genetic engineering and industrial processing with additives and chemicals. Now, a third solution is emerging: vertical farming.
Academic studies have found that locally cultivated vertical farms – stacked greenhouses that use artificial light to grow crops – can provide considerable savings, which could then be passed along to consumers. But questions about such farms’ fundamental economics, especially for commodity crops, have persisted.
That may be about to change. About a decade ago, four Dutch engineers – three of whom were also horticultural experts – initiated the “plant paradise” project to learn how high-value herbs, vegetables, and berries (not grains or tree fruits) grow best. They studied how much light green beans need to thrive; which wavelengths produce the most delicious tomatoes; what temperatures cause basil to flourish; and which combination of nutrients creates the healthiest cauliflower. Through persistent experimentation, they began developing recipes for each kind of plant, along with a blueprint for “plant production units” (PPUs) that can provide these ideal growing conditions wherever they are installed.
The project’s potential as a scalable business was enticing, spurring the four researchers to found PlantLab in 2010. Four years later, the company employs 35 people, including a chief partnership officer who previously managed supply-chain logistics for Flora Holland, the world’s largest flower market. The founders remain the company’s only shareholders; they want to retain control of the technology, while working with partners and investors to build the operating units.
Last year, PlantLab began the construction – set to be completed next month – of a $22-million, 200,000-square-foot (18,600 square meters) headquarters, including multiple PPUs and research units, inside the shell of a retail food-distribution warehouse 60 miles south of Amsterdam.
PlantLab’s pitch is that a PPU the size of a city block and just a few stories high could produce the same volume of high-quality crops as a large farm, while consuming fewer resources. The only water that leaves a PPU does so in fruits and vegetables; there is no evaporation into the air, no runoff into the ground, and no pesticides or weeds. As a result, the PPUs consume only about 10% as much water as traditional farms.
Moreover, like 3D printing, PPUs allow production to occur locally (thereby reducing transport costs and wastage) and on demand, under controllable conditions. In other words, any kind of fruit or vegetable can be grown anywhere, year-round (with a lead time of a few weeks). PlantLab proudly shows digitally enhanced photos of the same facility in a city, on a wintry tundra, in a desert, and – highlighting the PPUs’ ostensibly vast long-term potential – on Mars.
Not only do PPUs offer major savings in terms of resources and transportation; they are also not prohibitively expensive to build. Indeed, for something like $100 million, a partner could purchase the required land and construct a 500,000-square-foot (46,450 m2) PPU, with ten growing levels about five feet apart. (Operating costs depend, of course, on local water and electricity prices.)
The resulting farm would employ about 200 people for seeding, growing, harvesting, packaging, sales, logistics, maintenance, and management. And it would supply 50,000 people with a consistently high-quality seven-ounce (198.4 grams) daily requirement of fresh herbs, vegetables, and ground fruits like berries for at least ten years – all in less space that the average multi-story parking lot.
This might sound expensive. But, at just $2,000 per person, the cost is far lower than the $8,000 the average American spends in annual health-care costs. Given that a PPU will last for at least a decade, and offer considerable health benefits to local populations, it is a small price to pay.
If, for example, the world’s vegetable supply more than doubled, fresh, healthy food would become more affordable and accessible. Perhaps demand for corn syrup and processed foods would even decline.
As it stands, the closest approximation to this approach in the United States is marijuana production. With such high-value crops, it is worth honing the details of cultivation to ensure quality and minimize resource consumption. As global water supplies become increasingly scarce, more crops will become “high-value.”
It is not clear whether PlantLab will be the leader of the PPU movement, but it is clearly an important player. If the company’s processes offer all of the benefits that it claims, I hope that its founders license their patents broadly over time.
So why aren’t there already PPUs all over the place? Simply put, businesses, like plants, take time to grow. Part of PlantLab’s new site will be dedicated to Syngenta, the Swiss agribusiness/breeding firm. PlantLab is now seeking additional partners in other markets, such as pharma, cosmetics, and food.
Funding for construction will not be the only challenge that PPUs face in getting off the ground. Traditional farmers are likely to view them as unfair competition. The same thing happened to Amazon when it threatened traditional bookstores’ business model, just as it is happening now to Uber as it challenges traditional taxi and limousine services.
But those objecting are the services’ owners, not their workers. Indeed, it seems that at least half of the Uber drivers I have met previously drove taxis. Perhaps half of vertical farms’ operators will be former farm workers, and the other half will be new to agriculture – or perhaps retired marijuana growers.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

This idea of using PPUs to grow fruits and vegetables rather than utilizing standard farming techniques should definitely be considered by Americans. This article covers all the questionable loop holes of this system. The cost has been worked out and is efficient, compared to what people are currently spending. Also, the total amount of water would be less, as well as energy due to cutting down on the fuels used to transport the crops. I believe PPUs are a plausible and necessary alternative to current farms, and should be implemented as soon as possible. The technology to do this is accessible and action should be taken now to cut back on unsustainable farming.

Jennifer Hare

Chelsea Dow said...

This passage really intrigues me. As an ENV major with a focus in agriculture, I am always looking for innovative companies looking to foster sustainable practices. This seems to be the case with the PPU systems. I have worked on many organic farms, and water is of course always the main subject. If there is a way to decrease the water usage, it not only helps the city/area itself, but also the world. Furthermore, energy is a HUGE factor. When I worked at a hydroponic farm the plants required a constant source of artificial light which dragged up electrical bills, and consumed energy. This seems to be a way to harmonize both the water and energy issue. Most importantly however (at least to me) is the idea of locally sourced food. Shipping requires a demand for oil and gas. This will never change if the demand is always constant for foreign produce like mangoes, avocados, and limes. If there is a way to understand their growth patterns, and manipulate that environment right in your hometown, the need to shop foreign food is no longer necessary. To me, that is something revolutionary that could change the entire agricultural system for the better. I am thrilled to learn about this company and I hope that in more urban areas it becomes much more commonplace.

Anonymous said...

PPU's sound AWESOME! This is an example of how science, technology and social values can converge and create something GOOD for the world instead contribute to "business as usual" attitude most of the country takes towards environmental problems. The technology sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but I believe the reality of it is that PPU's are a very plausible alternative to agriculture already in place and all of its effects are confined to itself and to those who responsibly take advantage of it. This truly is a sustainable practice and alternative. If or when the issue of costs and competition level out, which they will if PPU's really are the way of the future, I imagine a nation more conscious of the effects their lives have on the environment, and in itself will further education and awareness on how the issue of sustainability intersects with every facet of our lives.


Micaela Itona

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of vertical gardens- especially with what this company is doing. Especially since they talk about how "The only water that leaves a PPU does so in fruits and vegetables; there is no evaporation into the air, no runoff into the ground, and no pesticides or weeds. As a result, the PPUs consume only about 10% as much water as traditional farms. Moreover ... PPUs allow production to occur locally (thereby reducing transport costs and wastage) and on demand, under controllable conditions. In other words, any kind of fruit or vegetable can be grown anywhere, year-round (with a lead time of a few weeks). PlantLab proudly shows digitally enhanced photos of the same facility in a city, on a wintry tundra, in a desert..." That means a great deal for those who live in or near deserts (like those in drought-ridden California, or those who live in Egypt, for example)and don't have a whole lot of access to water, or if water is hard to obtain at certain times. Even those who live in or near the Arctic Circle, or scientists studying in the Antarctic for periods of time, can obtain foods that may not be able to grow there or be imported in for whatever reason. Although they may not grow all of the food that humans love (like junk food), they do grow food that is not only important, but healthy as well. Plus, since it uses significantly less water than regular farms, people in places such as (the previously mentioned) drought-ridden California don't have to worry too much about how much water is being used for their farmed foods.

-E. Piper Phillips

Dylan Hirsch said...

Its interesting to see how technology develops in terms of industrial agriculture, since - in essence - that is all what PPU systems are. With a fraction of the water usage of typical industrial farming practices, with the decentralization of food production, and with reasonable crop output, PPUs have a real potential to be the next step in societies source of nutrients. Simply put, industrial agriculture as it currently stands will need to be replaced with sustainable methods if we will be able to cope with another 3 billion people by the end of the century. It is technology - again in this sense - that offers us solutions to our modern ecological problems. I am not arguing that technology can save all of our problems, but I thoroughly believe - rationally, if I may say - that technology (such as PPUs) play a vital role in solving our ecological crisis.


Dylan Hirsch

Anonymous said...

The idea of using PPU's is an interesting topic. I think that there can be many benefits for populations especially within cities. It would allow for urban centers to consume fresher and healthier produce. Considering this, there is still a major problem with large scale farming operations in which genetically modified plants and pesticides are used. I cannot see these farms going out of business from just a few PPU systems. I'm interested in the side effects of growing plants inside considering all of the benefits that plants get from the outdoors (Sun, Rain, natural weather, INSECTS). How do you factor in all of the great jobs insects naturally do to help vegetables? Bees for pollination, worms for the soil, and habitat for caterpillars/butterfly's. How will the soil recycle itself? Will the PPU's just dump the soil when finished and dig more soil from somewhere else. Cover crops are needed in sustainable farming or else the soil deteriorates. A huge issue in agriculture is the loss of top soil in the world, which takes centuries to recover. Lighting for the PPU's will take up a lot of energy. Even if the PPU's use clean energy (Solar, Wind) there is still an environmental impact. The materials needed to make solar panels and wind turbines need to be mined and constructed, which contributes to the carbon footprint. This is when we have the sun which is free. There is already a good way to conserve water in outdoor sustainable farms by dripping water onto plants through tubes. The large industrial farms waste water, but most sustainable farms use the drip method and probably use as much or less water than a PPU. PPU's are a good answer to the cities of the world, but I do not think they should be used when there is available space, and good climate to have an outdoor sustainable farm or greenhouse. I think there must be a greater movement to support sustainable farming especially by consumers. I do believe that PPU's are a step in the right direction and should be used in places where it is hard to grow food (cities, arctic, deserts).

-Frazer Winsted

Gian Joseph said...

I have read upon the idea of vertical gardens, green roofs and vertical forests, but vertical farming is a very striking idea. I find that the research done by the four Dutch researchers to be very unique and interesting. Its a breakthrough in science that this is possible to determine the optimal conditions. I also find it alarming that PPU's only consume about 10 % of the water that traditional agricultural farming consumes. Since agricultural farming consumes a majority of water we use, it would be optimal to think about using PPU.

Maria-Vitoria Bernardes said...

I think I disagree with this article. We already have so many genetically modified food items, is it really the best idea to add more?Products that come from the earth should be grown from the earth. Plant productions units (PPU)benefits the economy and the environment because you don't need to use as many resources, but my thought on the whole thing is humans. There really is no evidence how genetically modified foods affect us. The author makes a note "[what if] the world’s vegetable supply more than doubled, fresh, healthy food would become more affordable and accessible. Perhaps demand for corn syrup and processed foods would even decline. But, is this food healthy? is there proof that this is harmless to our body and health. I think that this could be a positive movement, but way more research and time needs to be put into the actual nutritious and health benefits of growing food this way.
Maria-Vitoria Bernardes

Anonymous said...

The PPU has the potential to help solve some of the world's problems. The vertical aspect means it will take up less land, which in return would leave more land undisturbed. (As long as we don't use the land in bad ways) Since its so controlled, it will be better for the environment and work better than farming. Plus it will still employ the people on the regular farms so there is no job loss. Like the post was saying it also cuts down transportation costs which will cut down pollution. It will also make fruits and vegetables cheaper so more people can buy them so then hopefully that will make out population healthier. Energy and water are the two main factors that effect the outcome, but i believe that we would be able to find a solution because look how far we have come already with water and energy. I can't wait to see how this turns out.

Mikayla Bonnett

Anonymous said...

I think PPUs would be very beneficial for a lot of people. But is it the ultimate solution to our agricultural crisis? I say no. Although the passage explains what the PPUs are capable of doing, it doesn't state exactly how all of the processes are done. I'm not fully convinced that we have found the answer to our problem but if PPUs were to start opening in America, I think it could have a positive influence on our current agricultural policy. I think the marriage between PPUs and better agricultural legislation would truly have a larger impact on society.
-Emma Weis

Maria Hernandez-Norris said...

This article is uber interesting. It touches on really important topics like the importances of locally grown fruits and vegetables as well as job creation or transition. However the most important part is the articles main focus in my opinion which is the concept of the PPU. This concept is science and technology in its best form - trying to create good from good. I would even to as to far to say this is a prime example of the concept known as Cradle to Cradle:
http://www.ted.com/talks/william_mcdonough_on_cradle_to_cradle_design?language=en
Regardless of how they are categorized PPU's would be great for energy and water conservation when it comes to farming. They would reduce our energy and water use as well as lead to an abundance of fruits and vegetables for society.

Anonymous said...

I think PPU's are definitely going to be a driving force in the agricultural industry in the coming years. As the need for more food with less space and water available, farmers are going to be looking towards alternative growing methods. I think that vertical farming should definitely be looked into, especially because it consumes only 10% of the water that traditional farms use. PPU's could be the future of farming and could solve many of the agricultural issues that we are currently facing.

-Marrina Gallant

Anonymous said...

I'm all for PPUs. This is a really good idea that will hopefully steer us away from genetically modified fruits and veggies. It'll kick start more small local farms that have lost to big corporations. Along with the fact that it reduces run off and there are no pesticides used it'll greatly lower how many chemicals are actually in our rivers and lakes. I think if this becomes popular it'll be a stepping stone to eventually finding a humane solution to the beef industry as well as other products that come from animals.

- Juliana Cesario

Michael Tierney said...

The usage of PPUs to grow our crops sounds like it could be the best thing to happen to our agricultural industry. It basically takes all the massive farms that are located in key climate areas, shrinks them into greenhouses, and brings them physically closer to the buyers. However, I could not get over the fact that the article states that they're only good for 10 years. The payout is huge, but how come they cannot be maintained forever? I know that the marijuana growers use a similar indoor technique, but I did not know that we could implement that to grow as many crops as the article states. Either way, this is a great method and should get implemented around the United States. It would cut down an incredible amount of waste and nasty bi products out of the agricultural industry.

-- Michael Tierney

Sulana Robinson said...

As new generations come in, new ideas are always blooming which is essential. But somehow it is easy to get stuck in our ways, therefore, great solutions like "vertical framing" aren't taken into consideration as strongly as they should be. PlantLab says it is possible to "produce the same volume of high-quality crops as a large farm, while consuming fewer resources." That being said, there should be more of an urgency to create a better farming system. With the population rapidly growing, there absolutely needs to be some stern cuts, and guidelines to how we can all eat (healthily, without countless chemicals involved).

Anonymous said...

Due to our dwindling resources and increasing population, a focus on sustainability is what seems to be critical and PPU might be a solution- and this is very exciting. We need to figure out a way to cut back input and increase output in regards to agriculture very soon and this seems promising. Also, the potential of possibly cutting back the demand for fast food and offering cheaper healthier options is equally as exciting.
I am looking forward to seeing how PPUs and this particular company grow

- Elizabeth Eggimann

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Apoorva said...

Although the use of PPU's to grow fruits and vegetables rather than using vast spaces of land and water is something that should be definitely considered by the standard American. Artificial lights can raise both the cost of usage and growing, and also waste our energy resources for no big potential other than food which could also be grown under natural sunlight. And to be more sustainable in general. A state like California could probably adopt this way especially now even more so because of their drought.
Other features such as a locally grown produce is an added bonus as shipping from out of state would mean more expense that is added to the buyers and also oil and gas that is used in the transportation makes the product way more expensive than just the cost of growing and labor.
This route is beneficial for the foreign fruits that cannot be locally grown due to the ecosystem and this makes it cheaper and also more available.
The only challenge this way faces is that it isnt ethical as it puts the traditional farmers at a loss and probably make them jobless.