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October 18, 2017

How does Vertical Farming and the IoT Intersect in the Cleanroom?

Vertical Hydroponic Farm

Here at Berkshire, we love solving riddles. So here’s one that had us scratching our heads as we searched for an answer: What do floppy discs and salads have in common? It’s ok, we’ll wait while you ponder. Give up? Cleanrooms! Wait, how can lettuces have anything to do with cleanrooms? We’re glad you asked and excited to explain – let’s dive into the world of contamination-controlled farming…

To date, we’ve always associated cleanroom environments with the research and development of pharmaceuticals, automotive or aeronautical components, semi-conductor manufacture, avionics, cube-sats, additive manufacturing, and pharmacy compounding. We’ve written extensively on all of these topics, illustrating the critical role of the cleanroom in the development and manufacture of myriad products and components that enable significant advances in the way we interact with our environment, explore our universe, or simply live our lives. And, because we’ve always stressed the importance of a high-tech environment in these high-level pursuits, we’ve come to associate cleanrooms with bio-pharma, nanotechnology, and heavy engineering. Rarely have we associated them with growing salad greens but, thanks to developments both at home and overseas, that just might be about to change.

Modern agriculture has come a long way in recent decades. With growing awareness of our role in topsoil degradation and the detrimental impacts of chemical fertilizers and pest controls on the environment and the products we consume, we continue to retreat from what have become ‘traditional’ intensive farming practices, embracing innovative solutions to food crop production. Moving away from the liberal use of petro-chemicals and nitrogen fixatives of the post-war period and toward the organic and non-GMO movements of today, modern emphasis has been placed firmly upon sustainability and mitigating environmental impact. But in addition to desiring cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable food, consumers also want better quality at lower costs, and this means re-conceptualizing the traditional farming paradigm.

In South San Francisco, California, Plenty Inc. is turning the agricultural model on its head by taking the idea of crop ‘rotation’ to the ultimate extreme: vertical farming.

Within its indoor farm, Plenty grows a variety of vegetables destined for the local market, from lettuce to strawberries and even fresh herbs. And all produce is grown within the confines of a contamination-controlled environment. To gain access to the growing rooms, protocol demands the same abundant level of caution and preparedness as any other controlled environment. Visitors don a bunny suit, disposable shoe covers, food-safety gloves, and tinted glasses, passing through a sterilizing footbath and an air lock before emerging into a 21st century forest of vegetable towers. Arching skywards, the 20-feet high structures are illuminated by pink and purple LEDs reminiscent of the utopian exoplanet Pandora in the movie Avatar, and grow more than 15 different varieties of heirloom produce – from red oak kale to basil. Measuring approximately 50,000 square feet, the room produces around 2 million pounds of lettuce annually for consumers in the Bay Area.

And the benefits are manifold.

Seven-Spotted Ladybug

Firstly, there’s the fact that all of Plenty’s produce is chemical-free. The company introduced nature’s own pest control system – lady bugs – which, as Matt Barnard, Plenty’s CEO, noted ‘work for free so we don’t have to eat pesticides.’(1) This increases both the quality of the food and its appeal to a local consumer base already motivated by healthy options. And then there’s the marriage of technology and nature to maximize the farm’s productivity. Plenty’s network of 7,500 infrared cameras and 35,000 sensors monitor and control critical variables such as CO2 levels, temperature, and humidity. And in a move that differentiates the company from its competitors, Plenty uses poles to house the plants, leveraging gravity to drip-irrigate and deliver nutrients to the densely-packed wall of vegetables. By collecting the irrigation run-off via an indoor stream and using a site wide dehumidifier, Plenty’s system can yield up to 350 times the amount grown conventionally even while using only 1% of the water. A pretty stunning level of efficiency when it comes to the demand on natural resources – ‘land’ and water – that are needed to grow our food.

Food cultivated in a cleanroom environment is…well, clean.

But let’s return to the riddle posed at the top of the article. You might still be asking where the floppy come in? According to an article in Quartz Media, Japan’s premier electronics manufacturer, Toshiba, has re-purposed a campus in Yokosuka, Japan, which formerly manufactured floppy disks in the 1980s and 1990s to now grow lettuce and other salad ingredients.(2) Their top sales pitch? Food cultivated in a cleanroom environment is…well, clean. In the absolute absence of pesticides, bacteria, fungi, bugs, and environmental pollution, greens grown in Tobisha’s dust-free, controlled environment are guaranteed to be healthy and ready to eat without washing. Unlike Plenty’s vertical model, Toshiba uses a standard horizontal shelving system to generate what it projects to be 3 million lettuces annually – or 8,400 per day. Growth of the plants is controlled by Toshiba-derived components – from the power generators to the lighting, the water generation systems and the tablets used by employees. But, like Plenty, the produce will be funneled into the home market, feeding a population of over 127 million diners and growing.(3) And given that 93.5% of the Japanese population is urban, housing such cleanrooms in proximity to cities clearly offers a logistical advantage. The Yokosuka plant, for instance, is situated just 35 miles from Tokyo with a retail base of close to 14 million consumers.

Of course, it’s not just Toshiba that has expressed significant interest in cleanroom-grown food. In 2016, Fujitsu, better known as a multinational IT equipment and services provider, announced a new venture – Fujitsu Greenhouse Technology Finland Oy – which, as you might surmise, is based in Scandinavia. Despite the region’s continental subarctic climate, the production of salad greens, those nutritionally all-important green leafy vegetables, was in full swing by the first half of fiscal year 2017, using a fully automated system that rotates trays of crops to maximize growth and resource efficiency. A system of sensors, the Ubiquitous Environment Control System, maintains lighting, air conditioning, pH levels, humidity, irrigation, and nutrient delivery, interfacing with the company’s Intelligent Society Solution “Akisai” Food & Agriculture Cloud, a proprietary distributed service for greenhouse operations.(4)

And this is a cost-efficient model.

Given the degree of automation via the network of interconnected monitors and sensors – a true deployment of the Internet of Things (IOT) – the costs associated with employees are lowered significantly, along with the risk of human-borne contamination.

In addition, transferring some of the burden of food safety responsibility to an automated, IOT-based system streamlines the process of adhering to Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs), industry-specific Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCPs), and establishes a more secure supply chain.

So what is the future of vertical farming via the Internet of Things? While we can’t know for sure, the increasing demand for ways to feed a growing global population, combined with a dwindling of our finite natural resources, seems to point to a need for a radical overhaul of our agricultural paradigm. Perhaps it is time to bid farewell to the romantic, yet out-moded concept of wide-open plains of wheat and corn beneath a sheltering sky. Of flannel-shirted laborers at the wheel of lonely combine harvesters plowing parallel field tracks as swirling clouds of dust track their onward progress.

Perhaps the future of agriculture is hyper-local. Kimbal Musk, brother of innovations legend Elon Musk, certainly seems to think so.

Each container can produce up to 50,000 small lettuce heads annually in a soil-free, nutrient-rich aqua-environment.

In an intriguing move last year, Musk co-founded Square Roots, a vertical farming start-up that uses storage containers to grow food in urban settings.(5) The first of these, sited in Brooklyn, NY, is a cluster of ten 320-square feet containers that grow crops under strings of pink and blue LED rope lights. Each container can produce up to 50,000 small lettuce heads annually in a soil-free, nutrient-rich aqua-environment. And this method delivers the produce more efficiently and in a shorter time span than on an equivalent 2-acre parcel of conventional farmland. The Square Roots initiative has the financial backing of FoodTech Angels, Powerplant Ventures, and the USDA, and the program aims to expand to 20 cities by 2020 – around the same time that, via SpaceX, brother Elon anticipates the launch of two unmanned ships to begin the process of colonizing Mars. Watch this space…!

Are high-tech foods – grown without the aid of soil or sun – the future? From 3D-printed pizzas to cleanroom cucumbers, the landscape of agriculture and food production is changing. The only question remains: are we hungry to embrace these transformations?

We’d love to know your thoughts! Please feel free to share them in the comments!

References:

  1. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-09-06/this-high-tech-vertical-farm-promises-whole-foods-quality-at-walmart-prices
  2. https://qz.com/295936/toshibas-high-tech-grow-rooms-are-churning-out-lettuce-that-never-needs-washing/
  3. http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/japan-population/
  4. http://www.fujitsu.com/global/about/resources/news/press-releases/2016/1128-01.html
  5. http://www.businessinsider.com/kimbal-musk-shipping-container-farms-new-york-city-2016-12/#the-square-roots-farms-sit-between-an-old-pfizer-factory-and-the-apartment-building-where-jay-z-grew-up-in-brooklyn-1
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