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Growing plants indoors no longer rooted in sci-fi

When it comes to engineering the food of the future, there's a fine line between genius and insanity.

For instance, 50 years ago the prospect that the world's primary food supply would include leafy greens never touched by natural light - or beef grown on a countertop, for that matter - would have been the stuff of science fiction. But if the taste of a crisp spinach leaf that's spent its entire life without feeling a breeze says anything, it's that there's a chance food's high-tech future could be under a roof.

Dwarfed by two-stories of row upon row of brightly lit plants at TerraSphere Systems, LLC's Coquitlam, BC headquarters, the company's founder says he's confident indoor vertical farms will one day provide Canada, if not the world, with all its produce.

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"This is growing vegetables at its finest," says Nick Brusatore with the proud confidence of a successful inventor.

Five years ago, the concept of growing plants in this manner was still very much rooted in science fiction.But with a growing global population, declining freshwater resources and an increasingly volatile climate, Mr. Brusatore believes the world will become to rely on food technologies like his sooner than we realize.

"There's no doubt that the world is changing," he says. "I like to think that we're going to take care of the globe with our [vertical farming]plan for the next hundred years, and that's about all anyone could say."

When it comes to feeding the world, it's been repeatedly suggested we're in for a scare. The world's population is projected to hit more than eight billion people by 2030, which means demand for food and energy could rise by 50 per cent, according to a speech by Britain's chief scientist in March. As of 2009, approximately 963 million people - or around 15 per cent of the world's population - suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

Think what you will of Mr. Brusatore's dire predictions, but TerraSphere's system is able to grow five times more spinach per square foot annually than a traditional farm, using recycled water and carefully distributed amounts of fertilizer.

It's also just one company out of thousands that is trying to revolutionize our imperilled food system.

This race toward alternative growing technologies doesn't only apply to leafy greens. From sleek backyard chicken coops, self-sustaining trout ponds or genetically modified heat-resistant crops, there is a wide range of technologies currently in development in myriad university labs and private corporations.

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For New Harvest, a U.S.-based non-profit research organization that's working to produce cultured meat - grown from a cell culture, rather than harvested from an animal - their holy grail of protein has the potential to be healthier, safer, less polluting, and more humane than conventional meat.

"It beats raising 10,000 animals in a metal shed, doped full of growth-promoting drugs, living in their own waste, serving as natural incubators for emerging diseases like swine flu and avian flu," says Jason Matheny, the group's co-founder and director. "With cultured meat, we can avoid all of that, with a safe, sterile process."

The typical meat culturing system is similar to that of a bread machine, but instead of flour, yeast and heat, the process relies on the building blocks of proteins: starter cells (either stem or muscle precursors), a nutritious growth liquid (enriched with vitamins, amino acids, sugars and salts), and a machine that can electronically stimulate growth of the meat mass on a frame. Although the system is not yet able to produce a true "slab" of meat, the resulting protein resembles, and could ostensibly be processed in the same way as, ground meat. "We already eat hydroponic vegetables. This is hydroponic meat," says Mr. Matheny.

Similar to TerraSphere's vertical farms, New Harvest says the production of cultured meat would generate 80 to 95 per cent less greenhouse gas and use 90 to 98 per cent less land and water than traditional methods. Since the production of meat is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector, says Mr. Matheny, shifting to cultured meat would do more for the planet than if every car was replaced with a bicycle.

That is, once scientists figure out how to make the manufactured meat available at a large scale for mass consumption; so far the technique has only been performed in the lab in small batches. So until the group figures out how to scale up mass production, don't expect it to arrive at your corner store any time soon.

What about the vertically farmed spinach? TerraSphere says it could be in B.C. grocery stores as early as February.

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