16 February 2012

One Tomato at a Time: Feeding the World with Controlled Environment Agriculture

Tomatoes grown with controlled environment agriculture
A simple insalata caprese served to bring about a possible, worldwide agricultural revolution in Tucson, Ariz.

Each tomato in the Capri-style dish was a product of gardening perfection, grown within a precise range of "Goldilocks" (not too hot, not too cold) temperatures with a steady supply of light, carbon dioxide, water, and nutrients. Each bite and burst of fresh-off-the-vine tang only reminds, "Yes, food can and should taste this good."

The lucky few who enjoyed the salad—along with grilled eggplant, squash, fruit, and watermelon juice—were University of Arizona scientists attending the Research and Reports Retreat on Aug. 19 hosted by the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC). 
Nina Fedoroff, professor of biology at Penn State and AAAS president, gave the keynote address.
By 2050, Fedoroff warned, world population would reach nine billion. Scientists must figure out how to squeeze every ounce of agricultural productivity to double the food supply. All this, she said, while simultaneously facing climate change, new biofuel demands, and pressure to reduce agriculture’s ecological footprint if the planet is to preserve what’s left of its biodiversity.

"The amount of arable land hasn’t changed in more than half a century. This means that the amount of arable land per person will decrease by half," she said. "I think we need to think of new ways. We need to think of the entire system. We have to think about the water, the energy, and the land."

Shaping up to be one of those "new ways" is controlled environment agriculture, said Gene Giacomelli, a horticultural engineer. As director of CEAC, he’s seen the center grow from its roots as a project to improve the living standards of communities in the Arizona desert to changing the way scientists view the future of farming.

Already, however, CEAC-designed high-tech greenhouses are producing nearly 10 times more produce—tomatoes, for example—as conventional farms with only a tenth or less of the resources. What’s more, it’s a feat that can be accomplished anywhere.

"It's providing food in places when and where we want it," Giacomelli said. "It's Biology 101: Everything is based on the plant. The plant provides you oxygen, purifies the water, and gives you the food."

Consider the work of soon-finished agricultural graduate student Lane Patterson on the South Pole Food Growth Chamber, a CEAC-designed greenhouse that has operated for six years providing fresh produce including cucumbers, melons, and a variety of tomatoes to researchers at the South Pole research station.

Patterson maintains control of the chamber from a computer station in Tucson. Based on hydroponics, the chamber is a closed system that recycles a high percentage of its materials. Sensors tightly control air temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide. Special water-cooled lights provide the energy for plant growth.

When operating at peak capacity, the chamber can provide each researcher three salads a day year-round, an incredible feat for a greenhouse at the bottom of the world (and that could one day feed astronauts on the moon). Unfortunately, Patterson said, the chamber only has its lights on a third of the time to save on electricity costs.

These costs, however, may be a thing of the past with new advances in CEAC research coming from the labs of Mirat Kacira and Cheri Kabota.

Kacira's greenhouse systems and plant sensory monitoring technology simulates any weather condition, computes airflow, and monitors growth of all the plants. Through use of thermal imaging, for example, his system can detect the onset of a nutrient deficiency well before the naked human eye. By improving efficiency of resources, he sees huge potential in savings.

CEAC Faculty, Students, Staff, Guests (me on the right)

Savings may also come from introduction of light-emitting diode (LED) lamps. Kabota studies just how much LED light and what kind—red light, blue light, or both—is needed to stimulate growth of plants. Working with other universities, the plan is to grow plants with the least amount of LED light possible.

Eventually, Giacomelli says, CEAC advances will be welcome news for investors who are bringing controlled environment agriculture to urbanized areas such as New York or Montreal, but whose operating costs are also hampered mainly by electricity usage.

One of these companies is owned and run by Fedoroff’s own daughter and her boyfriend. Lufa Farms of Montreal is covered in photovoltaic panels, re-circulates all its water, and is sealed to exclude insects and eliminate need for pesticides and herbicides.

"It's a pretty high tech, high-intensity facility, and it grows lovely vegetables," Fedoroff said. These urban farms, she said, could be the answer (along with genetic engineering) needed to feed the world of the future.  

She added, "What it does that I think is extremely important to be mindful of is it brings agriculture back to the city. We've separated it. It's important psychologically and brings the value."

As if the promise of fresh, flavorful, garden-variety tomatoes for available year-round for salads and sandwiches wasn’t enough!
Note: This report was written in August 2011, but had not been published.

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