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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Precision Ecosystems:
An Improved Model for Better Indoor Crops

The progress of humankind is heavily linked to technological changes in how farming is done. Today, farming in the US faces challenges never before seen that require supplementing traditional agriculture with new approaches.

Ever since farmers first yoked a draft animal to a plow, we have continuously employed new ways of automation to grow more and better food. Technological breakthroughs such as GPS-driven tractors, soil DNA testing, or smart sensors that monitor field conditions are becoming commonplace in today’s industrial agriculture practices.

However, with the population climbing, arable land disappearing, and the atmosphere filling with carbon, feeding the world has to become more efficient. Applying new technologies to traditional farming models is not sustainable against an increasingly hostile Mother Nature. Outdoors, we’re running out of ways to tame her.

In response, the agricultural industry ushered its technological innovations indoors. Urban vertical farms and industrial-scale greenhouses are giving producers improved control over crop quality, pest management and optimized yields. This new era of controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) promises to give us more locally crafted vegetables and fruit, grown more abundantly and sustainably on a global level.

Yet, some are beginning to question agtech’s approach to CEA. While the idea is sound, the current models are compromised. Indoor vertical farms and traditional greenhouses face serious challenges due to their large environmental impact. From the stress being put on electrical infrastructure to the water requirements needed to grow the plants to the excessive carbon demands of lighting, heating and cooling their indoor environment — it is costly and harmful to the planet. These indoor models are also less effective because air quality, sanitation, pests and other environmental factors remain difficult to control.

What’s needed is a new approach that leverages the best of the three ways of growing (outdoor, greenhouse and indoor) and innovates around areas that need improvement or can be done more efficiently and effectively. A new fourth way is emerging; tightly controlled precision ecosystems finely tuned to the unique genetic needs of each crop grown.

This new indoor model offers producers better ways to grow higher yields of fresher, more flavorful fruits and vegetables closer to home and with a lower impact on the environment. It combines a unique architectural design, intelligent automation and advanced growing processes to create precisely controlled growing environments that can support not only robust produce production, but consistent medical-grade, plant-based nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals — potentially including those used in the emerging sector of plant-based vaccines.

The formula

The precision ecosystem model is based on six core technological principles:

First, bring the power of natural sunlight indoors. This is the most critical technological breakthrough of the new model. Plants thrive and produce tastes best when they grow in natural sunlight. Many might ask: “But isn’t that what greenhouses do?” The fact is, they do so poorly. Even crystal-clear glass and plastic enclosures provide subpar transmission of sunlight.

New kinds of transparent building materials are now available that bring the full power of the sun indoors for the first time. Unlike plastic or glass, the materials let the full spectrum of the sun’s light reach the plants — helping them to move towards achieving their full genetic (and flavor) potential. Natural light also warms the microclimate when necessary, dramatically reducing heating energy requirements.

Second, combine natural sun with indoor lighting. When it’s advantageous for plants to receive more light — such as at night or in locations with unfavorable weather — supplemental, LED-based grow lighting like those used in indoor vertical farms can significantly enhance and extend a plant’s photoperiod beyond natural daylight hours; maximizing crop growth and quality, and reducing time to harvest by up to 50 percent or better. Greenhouses don’t — and can’t — do this.

Next, tightly seal the indoor environment. While greenhouses and vertical farms may be indoors, they remain highly susceptible to contamination, pests and other environmental problems introduced by people, air and water entering the facility. An additional issue is that for crops that are more pungent, the smell also leaks out. The new model calls for a sealed, cleanroom-like microclimate that keeps pests, pesticides and pollutants out. It also requires a closed-loop, convective air-circulation system created to maintain ideal climatic conditions without disease-spreading fans.

Control the temperature. The new model enables natural temperature regulation by combining natural sunlight and organic, foam-based “clouds” contained within the facility to dramatically reduce air-conditioning and other energy requirements.

The fifth step: Automate everything. It is crucial to limit human intervention and improve operational efficiencies to provide superior quality control. The precision ecosystem model calls for highly automated hybrid hydroponic-aeroponic systems, nutrients and lighting continuously optimized by Internet of Things (IOT) technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. This heightened level of automation reduces handling and associated costs, allowing for highest yield and lowest environmental and cost impacts.

Lastly, cultivate varieties optimized for indoor environments. Not all varieties of plants grown indoors are well suited for it. Cloning and seed propagation techniques fall short. You need to isolate at the cellular level crops that are optimized for size, automation and accelerated growth cycles.

The new model begins with careful micropropagation of varieties at the cellular level to ensure that food starts with the ideal plant — selected for yield, flavor and nutrition — and results in the plant achieving its full genetic potential.

Final thoughts

The progress of humankind is heavily linked to technological changes in how farming is done. Today, farming in the US faces challenges never before seen that require supplementing traditional agriculture with new approaches.

A new “fourth way” model of Precision Ecosystem agriculture can be executed in multiple agricultural sectors — from high-value crops to pharmaceutical crops to hydroponics; solving the environmental impact, quality, flavor and yield challenges of legacy models. This innovative approach is focused on the inherent challenges and systems currently deployed in all corners of the agriculture industry.