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Controlled-environment farming advancing with improved technologies

Controlled Environment Agriculture
Dr. Paul Ulanch, left, executive director of the crop commercialization program at the North Carolina Biotechnology facilitated a discussion on controlled environment agriculture with Michael Barron with AeroFarms, Dr. Ricardo Hernandez with North Carolina State University, and Dr. Matt DiLeo with Elo Life Systems.
Controlled environment agriculture is viewed as another important technology to feed a growing world population.

Thanks to advances in LED (Light Emitting Diodes) lighting, producing crops indoors is now a reality. But will indoor agriculture replace outdoor farming as the technology progresses?

Speakers at a forum on indoor production systems or controlled environmental agriculture held at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C., agreed that the new technology is just one more tool needed to feed a growing world population, but it will never replace conventional outdoor agriculture. However, they all see great promise for the technology.

“I’m excited about controlled environment agriculture. There is a lot of potential now that we can control these environments and cater to what the plants really need. We can focus a lot more on quality traits, on flavor and nutrition,” said Dr. Matt DiLeo, director of Elo Life Systems, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

DiLeo said controlled environment agriculture combined with a suite of new technologies that includes gene editing, genotyping and gene discovery will drive forward improvements in crops faster than has been possible with previous generations of technology.

AeroFarms is a Newark, N.J.,-based company that produces greens in a converted steel warehouse that does not require sunlight or soil. The company has built indoor farms that can produce food using a technology called “aeroponics.” Plants are not grown in soil, but in air canals spayed with water mist. This provides the roots with the necessary water to grow.

AeroFarms is marketing Dream Greens, a retail brand of blends of baby greens that feature baby kale, arugula, ruby streaks and baby watercress produced through the indoor farming system.

Michael Barron, director of research and development for AeroFarms, emphasized the technology is not designed to replace conventional agriculture, but to add to it. 

“It is one more step in feeding more people. We don’t see ourselves replacing field faming. It’s more of a complement to current systems. There are a lot of innovations that are needed to address food security worldwide, and this is just one of many advances that will be taking place,” he said.

“With the increased control you can produce more, and you can also have it be higher quality. You can change the nutrition of it. There is lot more you can do. It gives you a lot more control over the crop and the production of the crop,” Barron said.

In fact, Barron notes that with the advances AeroFarms has made in its production system, the growing cycle of producing baby greens has been reduced from 30 to 45 days in the field to two weeks under controlled environment conditions.

Meanwhile, DiLeo points to the benefits-controlled environment agriculture can offer to plant breeding, particular in improving the quality, flavor and nutrition of produce.

“For those involved in breeding, it’s a pretty tough environment out there for plants. Breeders first focus on yield because wherever you are growing your crop, you need to have it survive and produce enough so farmers can make money,” DiLeo said.

“After that you have to have storage and shipping traits because you may be sending your fruits and vegetables 2,000 miles away. They might have to sit in storage for six months or longer. And only after that is quality, flavor, nutrition. As important as that is that comes way below these other practical concerns.”

Through controlled environment agriculture, food can now be grown right next to where the consumer lives and at any time of the year. “That’s going to give us on the breeding and genetics side the ability really to focus on quality in a way that was never really possible before” he said.

DiLeo said controlled environment agriculture will make the breeding cycle faster and produce crops that offer the diversity of flavors and nutritional qualities consumers demand.

At North Carolina State University, Dr. Ricardo Hernández, associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Science, is leading research efforts on controlled environment horticulture. His work focuses on indoor production systems, including greenhouses, vertical farms/plant factories and tissue culture.

Hernandez notes that improvements in LEDs allow scientists to focus on the effect of light quality or spectrum, light intensity and the interaction of light with other environmental factors to produce crops indoors.

“Controlled environment agriculture increases the amount of product you can get for every kilowatt hour of energy,” Hernández explains.

“By doing this, we like to see the interaction between the different components that compromise plant growth such as light, light quality, air velocity, C02, humidity and temperature and then see through a combination of these if we can actually reduce the amount of light needed and increase the amount of grams produced for every kilowatt hour.”

Like Barron and DiLeo, Hernandez emphasizes that indoor farming or controlled environment agriculture is just one more tool to increase global food production and will not replace, but complement conventional agriculture.

TAGS: Crops
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