The problems with feeding a growing population from finite or decreasing land are well described. Ever greater yields are expected from intensive farming and new varieties and the progress in these fields are good but still running behind the growing human footprint.
An East of England company, having experimented in hydroponics and aquaponics, developed a simple and easily scalable technical solution for aeroponics instead.
Plants hang from vertical rows of tubular structures, and the roots develop with full aeration and regular spray shots of water/nutrient mist.
As there are no weeds in this system, herbicides are never required and, in controlled environments, pesticides can be kept to a bare minimum, or not used at all. This creates clean, consistent, repeatable results.
If one gets the technology simple and robust (which they did), it will instantly have its advantages. The plants are more vigorous and grow on average 30% more quickly thanks to complete oxygenation at the roots. (Several crops also demonstrate higher yields compared against test beds in the fertile East of England soil).
Secondly, the system’s closed-loop irrigation system means no run-off and substantial water and fertiliser savings. Additionally, the tailored nutrient mix encourages the plants to produce sugars and oils more efficiently, resulting in better tasting produce.
These advantages have already helped the company enter Australia, the Middle East and Africa.
Picture 1 illustrates a typical domestic setup; Picture 2 is the definition of an all-inclusive system. Both feature advantages like land and water saving as well as consistent production.
Consultations with different businesses and non-profit organisations have suggested exciting new market and business opportunities:
• Instead of farm to fork one can operate on a plant to plate basis in shops, restaurants, health or educational facilities as much as at home;
• Crops can be grown in unusual places 24/7/365 (with the addition of LEDs and a remotely controlled system) or by people who have no means or experience with farming – entry barriers are very low;
• New crops or different cultivation methods can be put forward (such as growing cotton without chemicals), or reviving old varieties for their nutritional as well as genetic value.
When the system is deployed in a very controlled environment, the concept shifts to industrial scale farming. The company has put together hardware and proprietary software for monitoring and control. Importantly, a pilot has been run to prove its profitability.
A sea container full of lettuce plants gives a crop every 34 days that gets sold to supermarkets on a commercial basis. It is largely possible due to very low demand on labour.
The company keeps improving product development towards staple crops and industrial scales. Even potato can be grown this way.
The UK company now seeks likeminded people and organisations in Europe and beyond, to both spread the proven profitable system and undertake further development in terms of technology or business. The company has extensive test data with herbs, leaf crops, vegetables and berries that can be adapted to different environments. Most of them can be taken to new markets quickly under commercial agreements with technical assistance. The latter includes training and "recipes" for specific species and cultivars in terms of growing conditions and nutrient mixes. Where volumes start growing, the manufacturing should be transported to respective territories under a license.
In terms of technical co-operation, some lines of development may include but are not limited to a) developing new agri techniques for crops of interest, b) extending the control and monitoring aspect into the supply chains for better planning and traceability.