RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – The world needs a new paradigm for how to feed this planet.

That’s the challenge issued by Michael Barron, director of R&D for New Jersey-based AeroFarms at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Ag Tech Professional Forum last week.

Controlled environments, ranging from shipping containers to huge urban warehouses such as Aerofarm’s, offer one way to do more with less, Barron told those at the event, titled “The Future of Agriculture: Crop-in-a-Box.”

In North Carolina, YLG Partners, the corporate entity for Your Local Greens, is about to take a leadership role in controlled environment production. The company plans a November open house celebrating its first crop from a 60,000-square-foot facility in Burlington.

Panelists at the forum included Ricardo Hernandez, Ph.D., assistant professor in North Carolina State University’s Department of Horticultural Science; Matt DiLeo, director of crop innovation at Elo Life Systems; and Barron. It was moderated by Paul Ulanch, Ph.D., executive director of crop commercialization program at NCBiotech.

Controlled environments bring numerous benefits

Panelists extolled the benefits of growing crops in controlled environments, which include:

  • They use no pesticides, fungicides or herbicides.
  • They are in close proximity to their market –resulting in less spoilage, a lower carbon footprint since they are not shipped thousands of miles, and fresher produce.
  • They use up to 90 percent less water than field-grown produce.
  • They use advanced LED lighting and ideal growing conditions to produce crops year-round, with higher nutritional content and better taste

“It’s technology that allows people to farm better and smarter,” said Barron. Aerofarms uses sophisticated data analytics to determine how to deliver better produced to the customer, he said. “It’s just one step to address impending food shortages and food security.”

Barron said Aerofarms evolved from an inventor “playing around with stuff in his basement” in 2004 to experiments with LED lighting in 2009 and formation of a company in 2013.

Its 55,000-square-foot warehouse in Newark is set to produce 2 million pounds of leafy greens a year and has inked deals to open additional farms in Camden, N.J., and in Pennsylvania.

Hernandez described the controlled environment research at NCSU, which uses “dynamic light recipes” to improve lettuce growth rates and quality, including higher nutritional value.

Matching different light spectrums (colors) to different plant growth stages in combination with other factors resulted in significant improvements in plant structure and nutritional value, Hernandez said.

Lighting schemes are also used by AeroFarms, Your Local Greens and other controlled environment systems. These indoor facilities also control humidity, temperature, and airflow, offering stable growing environments as opposed to the variability faced by outdoor farms.

Nature creates a tough environment for plants

“It’s a tough environment out there for plants,” DiLeo said. Growers have to produce enough crops to make money and need to focus on practical concerns such as storage and shipping traits ahead of quality and nutrition, “which come below those primary concerns.” In controlled environments, however, growers don’t have to worry about those stresses in the environment and can focus on the better flavors and nutritional quality consumers are looking for.

While these controlled environments offer many advantages, especially in urban areas, they have limitations, the panelists noted. Barron pointed out that they’re not good for producing row crops such as corn, wheat and soy. “They’re not going to replace the millions of acres of those we need,” he said.

Durham-based Elo Life Systems, a wholly owned subsidiary of Precision BioSciences, uses its proprietary genome editing platform to develop crop improvement and sustainable agriculture applications.

“We focus on health and nutrition,” DiLeo said. “We don’t think genome editing alone will solve all of agriculture’s problems, but in controlled environment agriculture, we can focus more on quality. It’s a drive toward improving crops faster than previous technologies could,” he said.

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center