Andreas Späth

Remote-controlled smartphone farming

2014-03-03 08:19

Andreas Wilson-Späth

I'm no fan of industrial agriculture, but that doesn't mean I don't believe that new technologies can't make the way we grow our food more sustainable.

If you think that FarmVille is the closest smartphones will ever get to actual farming, you’d better think again. An American company called Freight Farms is helping urban growers raise harvests at the touch of their mobile phone.

Conventional agriculture as we know it is not sustainable.

Mono-cropped fields and orchards as far as the eye can see need massive inputs of chemicals, from synthetic fertilisers to toxic pesticides and herbicides, rely on expensive patented seeds, including dubious genetically engineered ones, and are frequently located at great distances from consumers (food travels an average of 715km to get from the farm to the retailer in South Africa).

This type of farming pollutes the soil, water and air, denudes biodiversity, depletes soil fertility, destroys natural habitats and comes with high energy and carbon costs.

There are, of course, many alternatives that can be as productive while protecting the environment, including permaculture and organic cultivation. Amazing work is being done around the world in localising food production through initiatives like high-intensity urban farms, community food gardens and city rooftop farms.

The potential of these initiatives is significant. As the folks at Abalimi Bezekhaya, a fantastic organisation that has trained hundreds of low-income urban microfarmers, point out in a recent newsletter, using their approach, the 3073.9 hectares of the Philippi Horticultural Area, only half of which is currently under cultivation, would suffice to provide all of Cape Town’s fresh produce needs.

The system developed by Freight Farms is an example of a growing new trend in urban food production that can be used just about anywhere, close to consumers and with a small footprint. Their modular units are housed inside up-cycled shipping containers and use hydroponic techniques to allow year-round food production.

Hydroponics means growing plants without soil, usually in an inert substrate like gravel or perlite. The plants are fed by nutrients dissolved in water. There are several benefits of this approach:

- No soil is required.

- Growing conditions can be carefully monitored and controlled regardless of the weather on the outside. In the case of Freight Farms, parameters such as plant nutrients, temperature, air circulation and humidity can be managed remotely using a smartphone app. Energy-efficient LED lamps are used to optimise light conditions, simulating day and night.

- The containers can be stacked on top of each other.

- Because the water carrying nutrients to the growing plants can be reused, hydroponic systems require 70 to 90% less water than conventional farming methods.

- Growing seasons are extended and harvesting is simple.

- Because the system is closed off from the outside, the potential for environmental pollution is greatly reduced, while allowing for much easier pest control, minimizing the use of pesticides and herbicides.

- A wide variety of crops can be grown, including cucumbers, squash, pumpkin, cabbage, strawberries, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, rocket, radish, pak choi, broccoli, herbs and more.

- Units could be powered by roof-top solar panels.

- Using aquaponic techniques, the system could be closed even further, by combining the hydroponic component with growing aquatic animals such as crayfish, snails, fish or prawns. In this case, the animal waste products, dissolved in water, provide nutrients for the plants, with the water being constantly recycled between the animal and plant parts of the system.

You might not find the prospect of eating food that was grown inside a closed shipping container particularly natural or appealing, and I’m not suggesting that we should aim to grow all of our fresh produce this way, but this kind of set-up certainly provides an interesting alternative for our burgeoning urban populations.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
 
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