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Tech entrepreneurs set their sights on urban farming

 

Urban Farming

Producing food indoors means consumers are shielded from disruptions in the food supply caused by natural disasters. Growing indoors uses 98% less water and 70% less fertilizer than traditional methods, and has a higher yield. Photo: Rex Features

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tech entrepreneurs set their sights on urban farming” was written by By Martin LaMonica, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 15th July 2014 14.27 UTC

In the workshop of clean technology startup incubator Greentown Labs outside of Boston, there’s a piece of equipment you would not have found a few years ago: an indoor garden.

The garden is a testing lab for Grove Labs, a company designing an appliance to grow leafy green vegetables indoors. Its two founders, who conceived of the business while students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, envision people’s homes having “groves,” or spots to grow their own fresh food. The company, which recently raised $2m in “seedling” funding, says it intends to help people grow food productively at home using sensor-controlled gardens and smart phone apps.

The Grove Lab founders are among a growing number of entrepreneurs who are getting a green thumb. They’re using information technology and new lighting techniques to advance the field of “building-integrated agriculture,” or growing food in structures such as warehouses, rather than greenhouses.

Proponents contend that indoor farming and urban farming are necessary to feed a growing global population. Urbanites could potentially purchase locally grown, pesticide-free food year-round, lowering emissions associated from tractors and shipping products. Producing food indoors also means that consumers are shielded from disruptions in the food supply caused by natural disasters and that farmland could be restored to ecosystems, such as forests, that could absorb greenhouse gases. Growing food indoors uses 98% less water and 70% less fertilizer than traditional methods, and has a higher yield, according to the Association for Vertical Farming.

So far, indoor farms still contribute little to the global food system because production costs are higher than conventional growing methods. And they tend to use more electricity. But businesses are starting take advantage of new technologies, including energy-efficient LED lighting and automated systems, to bring down costs. As these technologies become standardized, indoor farming will make sense in more locations, says Chad Sykes, CEO of Indoor Harvest, which builds custom indoor farms for professional growers.

“There are lots of interesting technologies that will come out to automate indoor farming and make it even more efficient than it is now,” Sykes says. “Companies are getting into it because they see a niche they can fill.” Over time, he predicts robots will seed and harvest food and software systems will control every aspect of production, from growing conditions to sales.

Urban Farming

PodPonics, based in Atlanta, Georgia, is one of a growing number of startups using technology to bring farming indoors. Photograph: PodPonics

Cultivating plants in an enclosed space, obviously, is nothing new. With hydroponics, plants grow in nutrient-enriched water, rather than in soil outdoors. Some growers use variations on this basic approach to improve productivity. FarmedHere in Chicago, for instance, grows greens, such as lettuce and basil, using aquaponics, in which the waste from farmed fish is used as fertilizer for plants in a closed system. With today’s plumbing and filtration systems, these combined systems can recycle virtually all their fresh water and avoid the use of pesticides, the company says. Some of the most innovative vertical farming projects are using aquaponics, which proponents say allows them to generate more food in less space.

 

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