The United Nations estimates that the world population will increase by one billion within the next 15 years and that by then, two thirds will live in urban areas. Pressure on natural resources needed to feed this growing population, particularly land and water, is already intense. The growing environmental cost associated with pesticide use and the transportation of food is also taking an enormous toll.

The challenge is to produce healthy, pesticide-free food by using as few resources as possible, and doing it close to population centres so that food travels as little as possible “from farm to fork”. Enter the urban agriculture revolution.

The idea of farming in urban spaces is not new, but combined with improved – and more affordable – LED lighting technology, the possibilities of City Farming are just starting to come into focus. Because LED lighting requires less energy than traditional greenhouse light bulbs, and because it emits less heat, layers of produce can be stacked one on top of the other. This vertical farming, undertaken in a completely controlled environment, therefore uses less land, less water. Crops are not vulnerable to pests or erratic weather patterns. And if that weren’t enough, vertical farming has shown it can grow healthier produce at rates faster than traditional methods.

We reached out to Marion Verbucken, Creative Director at Philips Design in the Netherlands, to find out more about the Philips Lighting team’s work in City Farming and the opening of the company’s new GrowWise Research Center.

Q: Philips has been involved in horticultural lighting since 1936. Since when has City Farming become a key focus?

We have been active in the Horti business with LED solutions since 2008. That year we formed a team, which included our first plant specialist, to provide growers not only with a lighting installation, but also with expert advice about plants and how to implement the lighting system.

In 2011 we realised the first commercial multilayer projects in closed environments, where plants were grown without daylight. By 2013 we had defined City Farming as a separate segment in the regular Horti business, and in 2014 we created a team focussed exclusively on City Farming.

Q: Philips’ GrowWise Research Center in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, was launched this past July. Can you tell us a bit more about the Center and its main objectives?

The new 234m2 facility, one of the world’s largest, will concentrate its research on optimising growth recipes for leafy vegetables, strawberries and herbs, the main goal being to give people the tools to grow food virtually anywhere, in a sustainable way. We want to increase global food production all while shrinking the carbon footprint associated with food transport, reducing waste and using fewer resources such as land and water. This research facility will hopefully take City Farming to the next level, thanks to research into LED light recipes for vegetable and cereal production.

The research centre is a clean and sterile environment totally closed to natural light and air that enables fully controlled growing conditions. The facility uses connected LED systems that are fully customisable, allowing for the development of ‘growth recipes’ tailored to each crop variety or producers’ requirements. The end result is a better tasting product, grown in a more sustainable way and without the need for pesticides.

The Philips GrowWise City Farming Research Center addresses a number of trends and concerns in society. There is increasing awareness of how the food we eat is grown, the effect it has on our planet and the distance it travels from farm to fork. In addition, it is anticipated that new ways of food production are needed to meet the increasing pressure on the world’s food supply.

Q: What happens to all the plants that are grown at the GrowWise Research Center?

Most will be used for analyses; e.g. some of these plants will be dried in an oven to measure dry weight. Plants (lettuce and herbs) which are ready to be consumed, are distributed to the restaurants at the Strip, where they are used in exclusive meals or sandwiches for employees of the High Tech Campus.

Q: Describe your light recipe process. How do you determine the best light recipe for a crop?

Just like a cooking recipe, a Philips lighting recipe includes an ingredients list and a method, and Philips provides extensive support in both areas to ensure the end result exactly meets the grower’s needs. In this case, the ingredients list is the lighting system itself: the type and number of LEDs and where to place them to deliver the optimal lighting conditions and coverage for the plant type and greenhouse set-up. The method is how to use that system: how bright the lights should be, when they should be switched on and off, etc.

A growth recipe goes even a step further; this is the full package of the hardware (racks and automation) and software like climate (temperature, humidity, CO2) and also plant material, fertilizers and growth media, including the light recipe. The method is how to use that system for optimised results.

In order to develop the best overall growth recipes, we work closely with globally recognised research institutes, universities, growers, breeders and other partners, like a global network of preferred Philips Horti LED partners who can advise growers/city farmers on their installation.

Q: What can you tell us about increasing the levels of nutrients and vitamins in crops?

Among consumers there is an increasing interest in healthy food. In the past years we have found that applying localised LED light on tomato fruits during their development on the plant more than doubled their vitamin C content (L-ascorbic acid) and the higher vitamin C persisted a week after harvest. Recent research with Wageningen University (WUR) shows that vitamin C increases many times over when LED illumination is used on the fruits.

For some consumers, taste is an important factor when choosing food. It is therefore reasonable to improve the taste, sight, smell, and touch (organoleptic properties) of fruits and vegetables to make certain kinds of food more appealing to consumers. For example, during a trial growing strawberries in a greenhouse using Philips LED lighting, we observed changes in the organoleptic properties when the LED lighting was positioned differently. Leaf lighting resulted in the highest sugar levels, while fruit lighting resulted in the highest vitamin C levels. In both cases, additional localised LED lighting enhanced both sugars and vitamin C in the fruit.

In a similar way, we can also influence the taste of herbs such as basil, coriander and mint. We are conducting experiments and measuring how growing conditions can affect the concentration of flavonoids. This gives us a good idea of how to optimise the growth of herbs all while improving their taste.

Q: Is city farming the future of agriculture?

Currently we use principles of industrial ecology, an emergent scientific discipline that takes a systemic approach to environmental problems. This approach, integrating technical environmental and social frames of reference, is essential for sustainable development.

For example, city farming results in the efficient use of water, energy and land, thus lessening its impact on the environment. City farming also addresses social issues such as the increase in health concerns by providing fresh, healthy food, and addresses economic challenges by creating new product-market connections, among other things.

Philips Lighting strongly believes in city farming and is therefore already experimenting, doing and demonstrating in real time. Our goal is to be a key benefactor in feeding the 70% of the population estimated to be living in cities by 2050. Along with other innovations such as precision farming, we have no doubt that city farming will contribute greatly to sustainable farming in the future.

Philips Partner – A Snapshot

  • Green Sense Farms
  • Location: Portage, Indiana (USA)
  • Crops: Lettuces, baby greens and herbs
  • 26 harvests per year
  • 75 miles from farm to fork (versus the American national average of 1500 miles)
  • 0 pesticides, herbicides, GMO seeds or preservatives

About Marion Verbucken
Marion has been at Philips Design for 30 years, working in Future Innovation/Strategic Future Design for multiple application domains including Consumer Lifestyle, Healthcare and Personal Healthcare, and Connected Lighting. She has been a Creative Director at Philips Design for 15 years. Her role in city farming is to support the team with domain knowledge and gathering insights. She then translates this knowledge into actionable innovative scenarios for the future.

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