We have known for years that the world will soon be seriously overpopulated. HAS University of Applied Sciences in Venlo has fielded numerous questions from businesses and officials about cultivating food near urban areas without the influence of natural factors. It has joined forces with two of the leading names in agribusiness, Philips Lighting and Botany, a company that develops tests, verifies research, and supervises product development in the agriculture sector. The Dutch province of Limburg is supporting the project.
Growing food near urban areas without the influence of natural factors offers many advantages.
Judith van de Mortel
A sustainable future
"The first questions to come out of the scientific and business worlds concerned energy efficiency," Judith says. "Greenhouse lighting generates a lot of heat. Isn't there a more sustainable way to grow food? For instance, by switching to a different kind of lamp? For a number of years now, Philips has been the leading instigator of sustainable greenhouse lighting systems. Using LEDs is crucial to its approach. "Jasper den Besten, professor of horticulture and agriculture at HAS University of Applied Sciences in 's Hertogenbosch, stepped in and started experimenting with LEDs in the climate chamber. By creating BrightBox, a research and educational center for controlled cultivation systems in Venlo, we can now scale up production to validate business cases for closed cultivation. We can also perform research on behalf of businesses in the two research units with our students cultivating the proven innovations on a commercial scale in the production room."
"BrightBox is teaching us something important—how to optimize plant growth. But we're also looking at some important questions. Will tomatoes retain their taste? Light affects flavor, the plant's health, the yield, and a variety of other factors. First and foremost, however, we need to look at how we can influence growth—for example, by accelerating it. How can we improve output while maintaining a high-quality product? Will we be able to harvest more than once a season? Once we've amassed all the necessary knowledge, we end up in the kitchen, where we can examine whether that one particular product has retained that one specific flavor."
Determining the ideal light recipe
"Over time, we will gain control of many more factors. But that will call for much more work. We first need to know what light recipe we need for each specific product. We need to know the length of time, the ideal temperature, and humidity—all to see what effect they have on each crop's flavor. We're still studying all these aspects very closely so we can grow lettuce, herbs—whatever we want there. And our job is to determine all those aspects separately for each crop. There's no one-size-fits-all light recipe."
The sun helps, too
Judith points upward "Of course, we still have that great big source of light right above us," she says. "It produces an enormous amount of light and heat. Plants take the type and quantity of light that they need to grow from the sun, all by themselves. We understand the mechanism that they use. Plants have photosystems that convert light energy into chemical compounds and deliver the nutrients—whether directly or indirectly—necessary for their growth and development."
Growing crops under ideal conditions, conducting research on behalf of businesses, and scaling up the results commercially. BrightBox makes it all possible.
Judith van de Mortel
Food from BrightBox
Won't people find it difficult to eat products from a climate chamber at first? "Nonsense! There's no basis for that," Judith retorts. "We have been eating greenhouse produce for years. The only difference is that we're working with a specific light recipe here. That helps the plant use its own systems more efficiently and generate maximum yield from minimum input. BrightBox simply offers more climate control options than greenhouses."
What do plants like to eat?
"It won't be up to the plants. They get spoiled silly. We look at what a crop needs to thrive. We try to meet all the plant's needs in BrightBox, just as we would a cow in its stall. Cows also receive a variety of nutritional supplements to ensure that they don't go without anything they need. In fact, you can compare cows in their stalls with plants in the climate chamber."
What do plants want?
How do you come to understand what kind of food a plant needs? "We monitor what plants need on a day-to-day basis. An experienced plant physiologist can see how the plants are faring. Plants give off signals, or symptoms, that tell you if they 'feel well'—if they're healthy, or not. That is, if they're missing specific nutrients. The only thing is, the symptoms don't appear right away. Like us, plants have immune systems that kick in when something's wrong. There's really no difference between people, cows, or plants as far as that goes.
"Right now, for example, plants are aware that autumn is upon us. By adjusting the light recipe, we might be able to change that. We might be able to keep them in production mode and increase their yield that way. And who knows? We might be able to attune the LEDs so precisely that we can make our vegetables more nutritious, so that we get more vitamins without having to eat as much."
We can determine the ideal light recipe for each specific crop.
Judith van de Mortel
Brightlands at its best
"Brightlands is an ecosystem all its own. It's where research universities, universities of applied science, and the business world come together to collaborate, pool their experience, and search for the best way to turn knowledge into a viable business proposal that results in a profitable product. Of course, the ultimate aim is to create something of benefit to all."
Growing the future
"According to the United Nations, the world population will grow by about 2.5 billion by 2050, with 80% of all people living in cities. However, 80% of the earth's arable land is already in use. What's more, extreme weather will continue to destroy crops around the world, driving up food prices. Since its inception, businesses and governments have been coming to BrightBox. Cities like Shanghai and Tokyo are growing food in rooftop greenhouses. Urban farming has become a major trend there and elsewhere, but then these are countries where people have long been worried about food supply. If the predictions come true, this project is bound to be extremely successful."