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Sustainable Environment Today with Tomorrow’s Eyes

Cyril Darko

Biological diversity is the only life support system on our planet, no doubt. The air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink are possible because of this biodiversity. Yet, the human race is severely threatened, hence, the need for urgent action to protect biodiversity, to shift to new sustainable ways of production and consumption.

For a very long time, we have misused our natural resources, modifying about half of the Earth’s surface with catastrophic effects. Recent data shows we are reaching tipping points in climate change. This might lead to an acceleration of planetary destabilization and this, in turn, will affect the resilience of the ecosystems and nature’s capacity to provide the services that humans need. Dealing with biodiversity, there are various land use purposes such as food production, conservation, restoration and many more but our focus will be on food production for an ever-growing population.

Today, farmland takes up half of the world’s bare land. On current trends by 2050, we will need 50% more food for a growing population. Traditional farming is running out of space and for as much good as modern agriculture has provided humanity, it has begun to take its tour on the remaining uncultivated land.

With over 15 billion trees cut down each year, critical ecosystems are destroyed to make more room for farming. Furthermore, agricultural irrigation systems consume over 75% of our fresh water supply. While monocropping depletes the soil of its nutrients, it also forces farmers to use increasing quantities of chemical fertilizers which further pollutes the environment.

And so, the question is what’s the best way to go? If you answered technology, you’re absolutely right.

Technology to Our Aid: Glasshouse Production

In an effort to grow crops during longer periods of the year under managed conditions and without soil, Glasshouse production is a form of greenhouse that has evolved and become highly efficient through technology and innovations. These innovations are made in mechanization, climate control, greenhouse design, energy use, lighting optimization, pest control, CO2 enrichment, fertilization, growing media and water use.

Glasshouse production evolved from the concept of precision agriculture. Precision agriculture is an approach that uses information technology to ensure that crops and soil receive exactly what they need for optimum health and productivity while using fewer natural resources.

Allow me oversimplify Glasshouse production in one sentence. Glasshouse production is a technological advanced technique used to grow plants indoor (in a glasshouse or greenhouse) without soil but a substrate that contains all the necessary nutrients for plants to reach maximum potential or yield all year round.

In the Glasshouse, the main growing medium is the rockwool. The rockwool is a building insulation material and when the material got wet outside, it provided a seemly ideal medium for seeds to germinate and plants to grow.

You can find in the Glasshouse an ideal microclimate and carefully set up light spectrum for specific wavelength that optimizes photosynthesis which results in the rich taste of the plants. Also, there is constant pumping of carbon dioxide from the external environmental into the system for plant use thereby reducing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and the impact of global warming regionally. Plants that are growing in the rockwool plugs are inserted into larger growing holding structures that provide and recycle irrigation water and nutrients, and provide the main support framework for the plants. Then, throughout the production season, considerable care and labor are expanded on making sure that plants grow vertically, vigorously, and in ways that will enable efficient harvesting.

Mainly, vegetables are grown in Glasshouses and they are grown under quite sterile, highly sanitized, conditions. Following final harvesting of a crop, an entire Glasshouse is completely cleaned out, so as to remove all the risk of pathogen contamination that will be carried into the next crop. During the growing season because Glasshouses are essentially closed growing systems, considerable care can be taken to avoid disease and insect pests, and to provide season long and optimal water and nutrients to the crops. The remarkable aspects of Glasshouse production are the use of biological pest control over chemical substitutes.

In addition, another difference between Glasshouse production and outdoor soil-based vegetable production seen is the relative water use efficiency of the two systems. By recycling and filtering water and essentially controlling the indoor growing environment, Glasshouse producers may be able to reduce overall crop water use by 90% compared to what might be used under field conditions.

There are a few disadvantages as you might have thought. The cost of setting up is quite expensive but it's scalable so you don't have to do all at once. Since it's an enclosed system on a smaller surface, production is limited to vegetables and other short fruits or herbs. Also, pollination is done manually by humans or AI robotics which may seem unnatural. Lastly, it requires constant monitoring, care, and maintenance, and high operating cost. In all, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages which makes it more sustainable.

Now, in the context of labor, I bet you thought about the number of workers to hire because every day or week is harvest, then, again technology steps in.

Big Data for Better Decision

Data is most valuable in precision agriculture, and Glasshouse production feeds on big data. The goal is to reach the maximum potential for each plant, optimize yields, promote and maintain sustainability, and control costs. With technology, we can allow farmers to hand off more task, more repeatable actions, to their equipment. First, the training of robotics with artificial intelligence to allow famers generate more consistent outcomes despite all the variables. For example, there is a robotic harvesting system which is an industrial-grade robot on a mobile platform combined with computer vision for light, tools for grasping a variety of fresh produce and intelligence that enables the unit to do dexterous work in the Glasshouse.

Also of interest, this way of farming is in the cities, it can be done anywhere, so you don’t have to worry about moving to remote areas or countryside to farm. There’s no better time to practice sustainable farming than now.

Precision agriculture is about optimizing yields but most importantly promoting and maintaining sustainability. You get to protect the environment, do more with less, look at the world of today with tomorrow’s eyes, create a climate for growth and feed a growing population.

Through technology, we can leverage Glasshouse production and leave a better world for generations of Earth’s future inhabitants for their survival will depend on what we do today.

Cyril Darko

Full-stack web development, Technology, Entrepreneurship and Environmental Science.