Increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, water shortages, urban expansion and a reduction in arable land are creating a major shortfall between the amount of food we produce today and the amount needed to feed everyone in 2050. There will be nearly 10 billion people on Earth by 2050—about 3 billion more mouths to feed than there were in 2010.
So how is the agriculture industry addressing this alarming trend and the need to get wiser about how crops are produced? It’s turning to indoor farming and smart technology.
Indoor farming practices, such as vertical agriculture, are becoming popular alternatives to traditional farming, producing high quantities of nutritious fresh food all year round, without relying on skilled labor, favorable weather or fertile open land or high water consumption. They also can also be more easily controlled within a predictable environment.
Vertical farming, in particular, is yielding good crop production and a faster growth cycle while consuming smaller amounts of space, since produce is grown in vertically stacked layers, using soil, hydroponic or aeroponic growing methods. This revolutionary form of farming could potentially decrease deforestation and pollution, and help urban areas be self-sufficient.
Indoor farming, also known as Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), however, requires very precise plant science with transformative technologies, in order to properly control the environment and ensure high crop yields, quality, transparency, traceability and good taste, while reducing the use of pesticides.
Properly Lighting the Indoor Farm and Its Crops
In addition to providing the right conditions, such as temperature, soil or hydroponic systems, the key to indoor farming is to ensure that plants are thriving under the right light conditions – sometimes without a single beam from the sun.
The advent of LED lighting has been a key enabler to indoor farming, since it uses less energy, gives off less heat and can be fine-tuned and manipulated to address the variable needs of plants – changing how and when they flower, taste and the nutrient levels they offer.
Addressing the Lighting Spectrum for Different Growth Stages
Innovative LED systems can provide lighting spectra specifically designed for plants at different growth stages. For example, scientists have long known that photosynthesis is optimized in the red and blue band of the visible light spectrum, but plants also need green and yellow light to help regulate other important biological functions including photomorphogenesis. Thanks to innovations in LED technology, light recipes are possible, which can mix together specific hours of light, the intensity of photons directed at plants and the mix of colors, to provide the exact recipe for each crop and even to each stage in a crop’s life.
By providing light, for example, at the right moment of the day, a plant’s internal clock can be manipulated to respond as needed for optimum plant growth.
Providing Uniform Light Across the Entire Grow Space for Maximum Yield
There are several key dimensions of light, which can affect crop such as the length of day, light intensity and light quality, but another key dimension is light uniformity – how well light is evenly distributed to a growing area. Light uniformity should be a consideration when deciding the orientation of indoor crops. This uniformity of the light environment has a large impact on the consistency of the crop, since it regulates crop growth, plant development and watering needs. When the light conditions in a growing area are different from plant to plant, they tend to dry out at different rates and require harvesting at different rates, which can become difficult to manage.
IoT is Meeting the Lighting Challenge
While there are clearly many factors that go into selecting the correct LED lighting for indoor crops, the challenge lies in understanding the varying needs of each plant and responding to them accordingly with the correct LED spectra.
The Internet-of-Things (IoT) is providing the key to more effective lighting management, providing a sensor network that in essence communicates the lighting needs of plants to growers.
Soon, remote sensors will track crop growth under different lighting settings. For example, a chlorophyll a fluorescence (ChlF) sensing device could provide direct, remote, real-time physiological data collection for integration into adjustable LED lighting control systems so that growers can more accurately understand and anticipate the growth patterns of specific plants and provide light accordingly. The sensors could also help growers detect physiological changes in plants to determine if they are impacted by environmental changes, such as drought, nutrient limitation or temperature, photon flux densities and frequencies.
As Controlled Environment Agriculture and indoor farming take root to address the shrinking footprint of arable land, innovations in LED lighting are not only replacing the sun, but manipulating the benefits of photosynthesis to bring the exact right conditions required of each plant, at the right time. These advances offer a sunny outlook to the future of farming and the power of technology to address issues of world-wide importance.
For more insights into how LED lighting is addressing some of the most complex environmental challenges, check out our blog articles: The Problem with Blue Light at Night; Why the Future Will Be So Bright; or Lighting the Way to 2019 and Beyond.