Climate change increases variation in weather conditions and the risk of crop failures around the world. Plant factories offer a solution to this problem. Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) is studying and developing new technology with the potential to revolutionise food production.
How about producing food in a way that is not susceptible to frost or to rains persisting throughout a growing season? Plant factories allow us to control factors that impact plant growth and greatly reduce, if not eliminate altogether, the use of pesticides and the effects of poor weather conditions. Intensive commercial crop production takes place in a closed environment, under LED lights. And in vertical farming, plants are furthermore grown in stacks layered one on top of each other, which boosts production per growth area. Plant factories can be located in urban areas, for example, or in environments where production outdoors is not possible. They also enable the efficient production of large volumes of local food around the clock and throughout the year.
Does it sound like a pipe dream to you? We at Luke are currently involved in a variety of research projects related to plant factories and vertical farming in cooperation with other research institutions and commercial enterprises. These projects promote the commercial adoption of plant factories. For the production of different types of plants to become more common in plant factories in a profitable and fully sustainable manner, the technology and automation require further development. Research plays a key role in achieving these goals. Here are six examples of ongoing studies:
Diverse and energy efficient production to Northern Finland
The joint project of Luke and the town of Kajaani aims to take advantage of new production methods and techniques to develop year-round, energy-efficient, low-carbon and economically profitable horticultural production in Northern Finland. The ultimate goal is to diversify the horticultural production of Northern Finland with a production method independent of external conditions.
The project is testing the suitability of the vertical production environment built in the premises of Kainuu Vocational College for different plants and how to control different growth factors in the environment in question. In particular, the study is investigating the conditions and possibilities for producing berries and the seedlings for berry plants. In Finland, foreign seedlings are used because of their cheaper prices and better availability. Higher productions costs and smaller seedling batches raise the prices of domestic seedlings. On the other hand, increased demand for domestic wholesale berries and diseases carried by foreign berries (such as red stele and root rot in strawberries) have increased the demand for strawberry and currant seedlings so much that domestic seedling production has been unable to keep up. The project also seeks to reduce energy costs and environmental impact by building a solar power station next to the facility and by developing climate control. (Project: Vertical Pilot – Energy Efficient Crop Production with Vertical Farming; funded by the North Ostrobothnia Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment)
Finding out the life-cycle environmental impacts of different production methods
Horticultural producers have begun to adopt new production methods alongside open-field and greenhouse cultivation. Berries are already farmed extensively in tunnels, and pioneering companies have already started the vertical production of salads and herbs.
Plenty is already known about the environmental impact and development needs of open-field farming. Water consumption is high, for example, in addition to which fertiliser washouts are possible. Challenges include the impact of various environmental conditions and pests. The benefit of covered modes of production (tunnel, greenhouse and vertical production) is the better control of production conditions. Covered production allows for prolonging the growth season and, in some cases, even year-round production. There is often less need for chemical plant protection than in open-field cultivation and biological control measures are more effective than on open fields. On the other hand, power consumption is greater and the investments required for buildings and technology may be substantial.
The Puutarha LCA project focuses on the pros and cons of different forms of production, and the objective is to determine the environmental impact of developing horticultural production with the help of case examples (strawberry, raspberry, potted salad greens and herbs). The calculations account for everything from carbon, water and nutrient footprints and a production form’s eutrophication impact to the ecotoxicity attributable to the use of plant protection products, effects related to land use, the use of non-renewable raw materials and energy consumption. The results of the work will yield additional data on the impacts of the production methods and provide means by which to steer their development in a more sustainable direction. (Project: Life cycle environmental impacts of new horticultural production methods, “Puutarha LCA”; funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s Development Fund for Agriculture and Forestry (Makera)
A cucumber factory is a vertical farming solution for tall production plants
The plants currently grown in plant factories are typically small plants, like salads and herbs. As of yet, the market does not offer a solution or technology which would enable the cost-effective cultivation of climbing and/or tall production plants – such as cucumbers or beans – in a plant factory and in multiple layers. The new production method developed by Luke’s research provides a solution to this and creates new business opportunities.
Luke has developed a concept for the vertical farming of tall production plants. The project’s premise is an invention made in Luke; patent protection for the invention is pending. The project focuses on preparing the opportunities and channels for commercialising the vertical farming concept and will pursue new business either through a start-up company or licensing. (Project: “Cucumber Factory”; Business Finland, Research to Business)
Energy efficient and cost-effective plant factories built around a vacuum
Aalto University’s commercialisation project VIS – Vacuum Insulation System is a technological innovation for creating a vacuum inside a wooden construction element. This brings about two important properties: vacuum drying and supremely efficient thermal insulation. By taking advantage of VIS technology, the project aims to introduce to the market VIS Plant Factory – a new solution which is more energy efficient and cost-effective than current greenhouses. Thanks to the efficient insulation, there is no need for any additional heating at all, even though the light provided for the plants is achieved with energy-efficient LED lights alone. This could translate into a marked reduction in energy consumption compared to existing greenhouses.
The first test facility has been established at Luke’s Piikkiö research station and the results of the first cultivation tests will be ready in the spring of 2021. (Project: Vacuum Insulation System, “VIS Plant Factory”; funded by Business Finland, Research to Business)
Resilient food systems through vertical farming
Climate change, global pandemics, fluctuation in global commodity prices and geopolitical tensions have made the world increasingly unstable. Compromised national food security in crisis situations puts societal stability at risk, which is why it is critically important for food production and distribution not to be disrupted. Ensuring the resilience of the food system and preparing for crisis situations are indeed some of the central challenges faced by society. Food security requires functional international trade relations, resilient production chains and the secured availability of agricultural input.
A consortium composed of researchers from Luke and Aalto University is producing novel solutions and recommendations for improving both short-term and long-term food security based on new research data and diverse methods of investigation. The work on methods that improve the resilience of food production focuses on vertical farming. Literature reviews and scenario analyses help in finding out which conditions might make vertical farming a part of sustainable and resilient food production. (Project: Towards more resilient food system in the face of uncertainty, “TREFORM”; funded by the Academy of Finland)
Sustainable and profitable food production with the help of cellular agriculture and vertical technologies
Can food be produced without fields? This project run by Luke, VTT as well as stakeholders and partners in the industrial sector develops and studies new food production technologies which can help Finland achieve its carbon-neutrality targets. “Food without fields” refers to food production solutions that do not depend on agricultural land. Possible alternatives include cellular agriculture – or using microbes and plant cells to produce feed and food – and new vertical technologies for the cultivation of vegetables and protein crops. LED lighting-based greenhouse solutions for the cultivation of protein-rich crops are also a possibility.
In terms of achieving Finland’s 2035 carbon-neutrality objectives, the project’s solutions are expected to enable considerable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which contributes to achieving the said objectives. The solutions free up land for uses other than agriculture, allowing land to be reverted back to its natural state and thereby enabling reforestation and the promotion of biodiversity and carbon sequestration. The project relies on both systemic and technical research, and the work involves sustainability assessments, stakeholder collaboration and technological development with regard to cellular agriculture and greenhouse solutions. (Project: Disruptive food production technologies as part of achieving Finland’s carbon neutrality objectives, “Food without Fields”; funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s Catch the Carbon research and innovation programme)