Wheat for space: Bavaria is researching "vertical farming"

"Vertical farming" is an international research trend. This means indoor plant cultivation with electric lighting and air conditioning. Work is also being carried out on it in Bavaria. The goal: wheat for desert regions - and for space.

Wheat grows in the test cellars of the Technical University of Munich in Weihenstephan - under glaring LED light, 24 hours a day with a full supply of nutrients and water. This can also be done on several floors, says Senthold Asseng. He's been Professor of Digital Agriculture since March - that's what it says on the door sign of his office.

The expert in digital agriculture previously researched and worked in Australia and most recently at the University of Florida. "Vertical farming enables very high yields in a very small space," explains Asseng. By controlling the temperature, you can produce many harvests that you would otherwise not be able to achieve in a year.

Local production of large quantities of high-quality food
Regular wheat cultivation is likely to be a thing of the future in vertical farming for some time to come, simply because of the high cost of electricity and the effort involved compared with arable land. However, indoor cultivation has one decisive advantage: it is completely independent of the weather. The rainy summer in this country this year is depressing the yield and the quality of the harvest. Precisely because it has been so damp and cold for so long. In an indoor plant, the climate can be controlled and optimized to produce consistently high quality.

Areas of application in the future: desert states and outer space
Wheat cultivation under these artificial intensive conditions in vertical farming could one day be interesting for city states where there is little land. Or for areas where wheat cannot be imported. The technology could also be suitable for desert states such as Morocco or the Arabian Peninsula, where energy can be obtained cheaply via solar modules.

Use in space is also conceivable, if journeys last so long that food has to be produced on board the spacecraft. Researcher Senthold Asseng cites a manned space flight to Mars as an example, which is likely to take place without a return flight, if only because of the great distance and duration involved. Accordingly, NASA is also making experiments with vertical farming.

Climate change reduces the area under cultivation
Agriculture accounts for two-thirds of global surface freshwater consumption. The water is needed for irrigation. This is increasingly putting a strain on limited freshwater resources. At the same time, food demand continues to rise as the world's population grows. Professor Senthold Asseng points out that climate change and soil degradation are already making it difficult to ensure food security in some regions.

Also, many foods with high nutritional value (e.g., many fruits and vegetables) can only grow seasonally, while others are only suitable for certain climatic regions and are transported many kilometers to consumers. This is where cultivation under artificial conditions in vertical farming could help.

Hope: Vertical farming worldwide
The hope is that such farms with vertical cultivation can one day be built all over the world. "Because of their 100 to 1,000 times higher productivity per land area compared to a field," they could become a component of global food security, but not a complete replacement for outdoor farming, according to an essay by Senthold Asseng. Vertical farming is independent of climate change precisely because weather can be completely regulated in an enclosed facility, he said.

Vertical farms could save forests from further clearing for agriculture and free up current, agricultural land for less intensive, more sustainable, more biodiverse agricultural uses and other social purposes (e.g., public open space, reforestation). In other words, free up land as agriculture goes up.

Thousands of LED lamps provide sunlight around the clock
The idea of intensive production in an artificial environment comes from space travel. It has only become really interesting since LED lamps can be produced in large numbers at a relatively low price. This makes it possible to have thousands of lamps shine with adjusted luminosity and adjusted to the essential frequencies. Professor Asseng also talks about the possibility of using only half the energy with pulsed light.

Harvesting could also be cheaper in large, vertical systems than in conventional agriculture in the fields: Precisely when multiple layers can be harvested fully automatically using machines. The big plus of farming in growing rooms is the saving of resources, says Sentholt Asseng, no fertilizer is wasted and much less water is used.

Pilot plant for lettuce and herbs in supermarket in Unterföhring
But vertical farming is already in everyday use - in Bavaria, to be precise. To be more precise, in what Edeka claims to be the largest supermarket in southern Germany, at Stadter und Honner in Munich-Unterföhring. Managing Director Daniel Honner is appropriately proud of the system that a Munich-based start-up has set up in his store. It is a so-called "grow tower" for lettuce and herbs. "It's working in our store for the time being. The advantage: less water consumption. We have no pesticides, no pest infestation, and with 25 days of growing time, we're also very efficient, for that matter," Honner says.


Read more at br.de

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