07 October 2011

The Secret Life of Plants

Written by Published in Technology

What if our food could be grown locally and all year round, rather than travel thousands of miles to our supermarkets? It sounds almost too good to be true, but that’s exactly what Plantlab in The Netherlands are proposing with their innovative approach to vertical farming

With populations growing and land available for production shrinking, feasible solutions to our future food security are crucial. Self-proclaimed plant magicians PlantLab dig deep into science to find the ideal mix of water, light, temperature, nutrition and CO2 to create what they call Plant Paradise. Using holistic systems thinking, PlantLab is on a quest to build on and integrate three technological advances: vertical farming, progress in LED lighting and the practice of applying mathematical models to plant cultivation.
The end result is their revolutionary PlantLab Operating System. Sublime spoke to managing partner Gertjan Meeuws.

Sublime: Tell us how it all started.
Gertjan Meeuws:
We began our way of thinking back in 1989, first as horticulturists, then as plant physiologists. Our approach has been to get to know plants so well that we can get more out of them. Vertical farming helps us in terms of space, but the benefits of our system have a wider influence on the whole concept of how the world needs to change, in terms of growing food.

During the 1990s, we were looking at plants on a daily basis. The yields, the way they grow and behave, the relationship between temperature and growth speed and the correlation between light and photosynthesis – we examined all these parameters. At the end of ten years of study, we said to each other: ‘Plant organisms are so intelligent that they are prepared to adapt to every single circumstance, whether it is a dry, wet or hot summer’.

To put plants in optimal circumstances, the earliest effort was, of course, the greenhouse. Our idea was to build the next generation of greenhouse, where everything can be fine-tuned to make plants even happier, and enable them to produce at their maximum rate.

S: How does Plant Paradise work?
As far as we’re concerned, real photosynthetic light absorbed by the chloroplast of a plant consists only of red, blue and far-red light waves. Far-red is invisible to the human eye, but plants react very strongly to it. So in sunlight or white light, plants are green due to the fact that they absorb red and blue light waves. The end result is green, and that’s what they reflect and what we see. We have created a new type of nursery, without daylight, where we give plants only red, blue and far-red light.

The chloroplast of a plant produces sugar, which is transported from the lower parts of the leaves to the fruits or roots through very intelligent transport systems. Those parts of the plants are not able to produce enough sugar themselves. In this way, a plant is a whole logistical system – we compare it to a factory. If the logistics are not at an optimal level, it will produce less than it would otherwise.

Our system combines light and a sophisticated climate control that is developed for running growing recipes. These recipes can be run through the internet, and tell the system what to do from minute to minute, from seed through to harvest.

S: What about elements like water, nutrients and pesticides?
Our system needs no sunlight and very little water – we save 90% of the water used in normal horticulture. The water is captured in the plants themselves, taken up by the roots and evaporated through the leaves, captured again and put back in the water tank. We believe that in the next 10 to 20 years water will become a bigger problem than fossil fuels – and there is no replacement for water. If we continue to produce food the way we do today, we will need a lot more ground surface for production, and there will be a real struggle for water between humans, nature and agriculture.

So far, we have not changed anything to do with plant nutrients. We use only the nutrient solutions that have been developed and employed in horticulture for decades. That is another chapter for Plant Paradise. It might turn out that plants need different nutrients compared to the ones they would use if they were grown outside.
In terms of pesticides, we have never had reason to use any. University scientists visit us frequently, and their only explanation for our not needing pesticides is that happy plants can protect themselves better. They create a shield that prevents diseases and pests, and that signals to aphids and spider mites: ‘I’m too healthy, don’t attack me’.

S: How is PlantLab different from organic growing methods?
There is an interesting paradox. We have accepted technology everywhere, in our phones, our computers. If we have a heart attack, we love the technology the hospital has to offer! Yet we close our eyes to the technology that is being used for producing our food. We act and behave as if it is not there, and keep on screaming that the world should be organic. The concept of ‘organic’ today is not the solution for the whole world, as it can only feed 2bn people. Right now there are 7bn of us, and soon there will be 9bn.

But if we were to merge technology and organic cultivation, we might be able to surmount the problem and embrace a technology that could help us produce just the right amount of food using hardly any water. It would be locally grown for specific communities (so no transportation issues) and without pesticides. These are all advantages connected to vertical farming, and it is our wishlist when we call something ‘organic’. The only thing we have to do is to accept that technology is a part of it.

S: People are concerned about enjoying a variety of foods, and preserving species that are disappearing. Can your system help with this?
There are forgotten vegetables that our parents had in their gardens 40, 50 years ago. They disappeared due to their lack of resistance to pests and diseases, which meant they were not being produced in sufficient quantities. But we can reintroduce the varieties our parents enjoyed, anywhere in the world.

S: What do you see as the key benefit of your system?
We can make supply really meet demand. Agriculture is a system where there is either far too much or not enough, as we produce according to climate. We have little production in winter and too much in summer. Our system is like a multi-storey building with several layers, where we can grow different things ready for the following day. This allows for unusual growing patterns that until now have never been possible in horticulture. In this way, a small building can produce food for a large number of people.

The whole food production system of today focuses on producing fruit in those places where it is cheap to do so and then shipping it by airplane, train or lorry. So the fruit we eat is the product of a system that we might not think is outdated, but when we look at the whole of agriculture, we see that it is not possible to produce food where the consumers are. We can’t put a greenhouse in the middle of New York, or in Kenya or South Korea. The combination of how we produce and how we transport products has brought about how we are fed now.

Another advantage is that PlantLab enables us to look at the end product we want: for example, how much baby lettuce, different herbs, slices of tomatoes and cucumbers there should be in an ideal salad. We can then calculate what size of nursery will fit different amounts of salads to be produced per day. This approach of making the end product the starting point of a nursery has never been looked at before. For the first time ever we are starting at consumer level, which allows for almost zero waste. This is something we could probably do for Burger King and McDonald’s. But of course the smaller the scale, the more difficult it is to make supply match demand.

S: What is the process for getting your system out into the world?
As we are in favour of producing local foods for local people, we also want to build our nurseries in this way. If someone wants a nursery in China, we will look for local construction and installation companies that can put it in place. Our business concept is that constructing a building is not our competence; we are plant physiologists. But we know the specs of the buildings needed to optimise growing conditions.

Prior to the nursery being built, there is a process we call Plant Paradise Design. We have a fluid team of people with different skills for that process, with the client at the centre. We start with a vague idea and end up with a very concrete design, and that can take between six months and two years.

There is a Dutch company we have known for a long time that provides the technical units and that takes care of the air-conditioning, water purification, irrigation and the dosing of nutrients. These parts are put together in one package, shipped to the nursery and installed by qualified locals. What we deliver is the PlantLab Operating System: the software that runs everything. A nursery owner in China will be able to purchase growing recipes for his product range and upload new ones if he decides to change, say, to sweet peppers. He can upload the recipes from the internet.

S: Would the hardware need to be adjusted for a change of crop?
There will be hardware for different groups of products such as herbs, spinach, lettuce. They can be grown in the same conditions as crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet peppers. Those are plants that grow vertically. But we can also choose varieties that grow horizontally, such as herbs. There are different groups, and our nursery can be adapted to suit them all.

S: What about commodities such as cocoa and coffee? Do they have a future at PlantLab?
We are convinced, because we have tried many crops so far, that we can grow anything, so coffee, cocoa, and soy beans are all possible. But there is an economic factor as well. When we start researching a new crop, we have to look at the cost feasibility. For example, herbS: herbs are entirely feasible because they are expensive.

S: What is the cost of PlantLab?
On a really small scale, PlantLab can’t compete on cost. But that is like comparing apples with pears. You would benefit from your own supply, and it would be fresh. You would be producing super-healthy vegetables – home-grown broccoli, for example, has 30 to 100 times as many antioxidants as the broccoli we are used to consuming. Also, growing at home is like having your own garden: it’s a hobby that helps you reconnect with food. If you start calculating on your hobby, it’s probably not profitable.

On a larger scale, say, for a greengrocer who wants to grow his own herbs, the investment is high but the payback time is a maximum of three years. In most cases it is paid back within a year. Although the investment is huge compared to what you know from horticulture, you can do things that you can’t do with horticulture. The system enables a nursery to produce and sell directly to the consumer. A normal greenhouse sells 0.1% of produce direct to the consumer, so they need the supply chain. Our concept is local-for-local as needed, so you can downscale and produce less, but of the best quality and according to demand, selling directly to local consumers.

The market is out there. If you look at farmer’s markets in London, for instance, people are willing to pay at least 50% more for organic produce. These prices make no sense, but people are just buying it to feel good.

S: Are people using the system?
We have two small nurseries, one about 100m2 in size and the other 200m2. These are really our test nurseries, and are totally stable. Our dream is that within the next four to six months we will start building a nursery that could be for high-end horticulture looking at industry solutions. That is one market, and the other is urban/vertical farming.

There has been a lot of interest in PlantLab from all over the world. We have had 10,000 emails over the last ten months, and do three or four interviews with the media each week. But I guess our real target group is the next generation – the teenage children of my business partners think this way of growing is the most natural in the world.

S: What’s next for PlantLab?
We are establishing a small farm shop in Amsterdam, which will be ready at the beginning of 2012. It will be a small nursery in a spot where you would not expect one. It will be open to everyone to buy herbs, have a cup of tea and experience the system. There will be small showrooms where we will grow tomatoes and cucumbers, and so on.
We have also been approached more than once by entrepreneurs and governments from countries in the Gulf region. They are used to importing everything, and know that in the future they will have to change their habits. They have asked about building a huge nursery – how much it would cost, and what it would produce. We’ve been buzzing about that.

S: What difference do you see PlantLab making?
We’re at the end of an age with the economy the way it is. We need new ideas and a new understanding of money. It has no value unless you turn it back into something useful. If our way of thinking starts moving, there might be a day when we will make a lot of money. And we are really looking forward to making a lot of money! Of course, we want to live, and to be honest with you, I really like fancy cars. But I am sure there will be money left over, and what is the use of having a bank account full of money just sitting there? It doesn’t do much – it’s boring! First you have to get it; then you have to get rid of it. 

Every day 100,000 people die from malnutrition. If we look at Africa, there are 400,000 refugees from Somalia in the south of Kenya, and food is a huge problem. I’ve heard that they are looking for €1.2bn for that region. If businesspeople interested in circulating their wealth rather than sitting on it invested just €100m, we could have a solar plant and a nursery capable of producing food for 500,000 people using just 8,000 litres of water a day.

If the United Nations donated the seeds and the nutrients, it would cost €13 per person per year to produce 10g to 20g of super-healthy vegetables every day for each individual. As the vegetables would be fresh and therefore have 30 to 100 times as many anti-oxidants as the vegetables we normally buy, that would be enough. I’m pretty sure that we are donating much more than that.

Yet we are still looking for traditional agriculture solutions in these countries, although we know that it has not rained for 18 months, and that that situation probably won’t change. So why not put technology at the centre of our thinking for developing countries?Ultimately what we need is a little more courage, and inspiring, rather than bossy, leadership that’s concerned with future needs, rather than based on fear.


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