Image Credit: Yoshi0511 | Shutterstock.com
The History of Artificial Plants
Traditional agriculture methods are typically based on treating acres of soil and plants with products including chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other synthetic solutions. While sustainable, conventional farming techniques are often criticized for altering the natural environment and the potential for adverse health effects.
As communities continue to grow rapidly throughout the world, the demand for food rises while the land available for food production decreases. This rapid population growth creates a pressure for science to enhance the way crops are grown, in order to maximize the potential of plants to deliver the greatest benefit.
In an effort to alleviate some of the problems faced by the agricultural industry, artificial plant factories eliminate the need for soil, sunlight, or any chemical additive to grow high quality products. Despite their novel appearance, artificial plants date back to attempts made by the Ancient Chinese, Romans, and Egyptians.
The Chinese attempted to find easier methods to grow silk and race paper, the Romans made extremely intricate and realistic-looking flowers out of wax, and the Egyptians utilized different materials to craft artificial wreaths1. Since 1980, China alone has built hundreds of artificial plant and flower factories, contributing to this worldwide multi-billion dollar industry.
Toshiba's 'Clean Factory'
Often referred to as “urban agriculture,” artificial plant factories are a safe option to meet the rising demand for organic and locally grown food. Toshiba, Japanese technology giant, is one of numerous corporations around the world utilizing new technologies for this agricultural advancement. Toshiba’s ‘clean’ factory is located in a disused 21,000-square foot electronics factory in Yokosuka, Japan2.
With the aim to grow the world’s highest quality lettuce, Toshiba’s new high-tech farm utilizes temperature and humidity controlled isolation tanks and artificial lighting, creating an environment completely devoid of the normal external conditions seen on a farm.
Each plant receives vitamins and nutrients as a direct injection into their roots, eliminating the need for soil. In order to ensure the aseptic conditions of the farm, lettuce inspectors wear full body suits when taking notes on the quality and growth of the leaves, to ensure no contamination occurs.
This harvesting technique aims to create a final product that is free of any form of bacteria, fungi or insect life before being placed into sealed bags, creating a much longer shelf life than any other lettuce on the market2. The lettuces require no pesticides, and are expected to have a similar life expectancy to plants that have been heavily treated with chemicals, achieving the ultimate goal in organic farming.
Image Credit: Yoshi0511 | Shutterstock.com
Artificial Plant Factories Across the Globe
Similar urban agriculture systems have been put into place in other countries around the world including China, the United States, Canada, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. Founded in November of 2013, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) CityFarm project uses a particularly innovative approach to artificial plant growth through “aeroponic” agriculture.
Pioneered in the 1990s by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to grow crops on spacecrafts, the roots of crops grown through aeroponic technology hang in the air below the plant3.
With 70-90% greater water-efficiency than conventional farming, aeroponic roots are periodically misted with water containing nutrients, such as phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, copper and magnesium. The nutrients within this mist provide the same minerals and nutrients that plants would normally get from healthy soil, while avoiding the vulnerability to pests that inevitably occurs in outdoor farms.
Similarly in Vancouver, British Columbia, an 8,000-square foot warehouse has successfully utilized a hydroponic system for lettuce and spinach growth. Within a hydroponics system, roots of a plant are suspended in either a static, continuously aerated nutrient solution, or within a continuous flow or mist of nutrient solution, replacing dirt with circulating water4.
Artificial plant factories offer new and improved ways to enhance the way in which we grow our everyday food products. While there is speculation over how the costs of electricity to power these factories could affect production, researchers are undoubtedly optimistic about the potential urban agriculture could have for our future. Chris Higgins, an industry consultant and owner of Hort Americas, a Dallas, Texas supplier of hydroponic growing systems, agrees;
You’re turning food into a factory scenario, where you can control the environment completely. They could get production 365 days a year, which would be a huge advantage. They’re on the cutting edge.5
Chris Higgins, Industrial Consultant and Owner, Hort Americas
References and Further Reading
- The Artificial Plants and Flowers Industry: A Beautiful History
- Farming of the Future: Toshiba's 'clean' Factory Farm Where Three Million Bags of Lettuce Are Grown without Sunlight OR Soil
- No Sun, No Soil, No Problem: Eat an Indoor Farm Salad
- Jones, J. Benton. Hydroponics: A Practical Guide for the Soilless Grower. Boca Raton, FL: St. Lucie, 1997. Print.
- Urban Farming 2.0: No Soil, No Sun