The current global uncertainty has highlighted the obvious: food is life. To lessen risk of global malnutrition, food production must become more efficient and sustainable.
The answers to this challenge, according to the Environmental Energy Institute at the University of Windsor, lie in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). Greenhouses and vertical farms produce higher yields in less space, with potentially smaller environmental footprints. At the same time, they can have high energy demands, so the institute has worked for about a decade with the Leamington Kingsville greenhouse sector to help optimize efficiency.
When a call came from Weston Foods to create amplified, sustainable future agriculture initiatives, the institute’s leadership team realized they were ahead of the curve. “To me, amplified means indoor, controlled-conditions agriculture,” says director and engineering professor Rupp Carriveau. “Sustainable means using renewable energy, which is what we were doing.”
The result is a program designed to change the future of agriculture, using advanced technology to design CEA projects.
“Say that you lived way up north, and you had only so much energy available from solar radiation. You start with that budget, a 3D printer, our model and a plant choice. You’ve got nutritional outcomes you want to meet to sustain your population. You put these outcomes into our model, and it tells you that, for a certain yield, based on the conditions, your greenhouse should have this shape and be buried halfway into the ground, a great way of moderating temperatures,” he explains. “With a 3D printer, if something fails, it’s possible to print a spare part rather than wait for a supply ship to come in.”
The first tier of the institute’s work, identifying incremental improvements for the greenhouse industry, led seamlessly to the second tier, using resource and nutritional variables to optimize design outcomes.
Tier two is the wilder, blue-sky level of the program, designing CEA projects that would work in remote India, Northern Canada or on Mars to learn about future real-world possibilities. “We might be able to change things for people who have had to choose between buying one pepper for $27 or 12 Twinkies for $1,” he adds.
The third tier of the program is growing a CEA workforce, says Dr. Carriveau. “We are introducing the concept of 3D printing your own greenhouse into high schools. Many young people aren’t aware of the high-tech nature of agriculture, so we’re hoping to reverse that – so that people understand that, while farming is incredibly important, it is also incredibly exciting and challenging.”
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.