By Peter Ling and Mary Wicks
Growing crops in a completely controlled environment would appear to address many of the challenges farmers face from variability in temperature and rainfall to infestations of insects and weeds. However, replicating the “bioregenerative support system” that is Earth, is not easy. As engineers and scientists work to create such a system that would allow for long-term space travel or living, they are developing technologies that are being used to increase crop production at home.
What is needed for a bioregenerative support system?
This artificial ecosystem needs to provide everything required by humans to sustain life. Plants are the crucial component. They produce the oxygen we breathe, assimilate the carbon dioxide we exhale, transpire the water that can be collected for drinking and other uses, and process wastewater and absorb nutrients through their rootzone. Finally, as a result of all these functions, plants produce the food and fiber we need.
High tech crop production
Many of the techniques and tools created for growing crops in space have been adopted to address the Earth-bound challenges of feeding a growing population, minimizing use of water and other resources, and protecting the environment. Two technologies considered to have high potential to meet these needs are plant health monitoring and vertical farming, which are often used in combination.
Instruments that can quickly and/or remotely monitor the growing environment as well as plant response allow for early intervention that can significantly improve crop performance. In greenhouse production, sensors that detect real time changes in temperature, humidity, light level, or CO2 concentration can be coupled with controllers that auto correct these environmental factors to optimize plant growth. Drones equipped with sensors that detect variations in light wavelengths emitted or reflected by a crop can be used in a greenhouse or field to help identify early signs of disease, insect infestations, or other stressors. Similarly, monitoring changes in plants’ responses to the environment, such as changes in photosynthetic or respiration rates, can help minimize production losses.
Vertical farming allows for significant crop production within a small footprint and with reduced water needs. It can utilize soil, hydroponic or aeroponic methods and can be adapted for challenging environments such as deserts or cities. Companies are developing vertical growing systems that can be incorporated into high-rise office or apartment buildings as well as into small modular farms that allow for easy transport and scaled-up.
Looking to the future
Current research is focused on improving the efficiency of growing systems. It includes optimizing resource utilization and nutrient recycling, and methods that allow spacing requirements to vary throughout the growth cycle. As new technologies for bioregenerative support systems in space are developed, crop production on Earth will continue to benefit.
Dr. Peter Ling is an Associate Professor and Mary H. Wicks is a Program Coordinator in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering of The Ohio State University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com. Phone: (330)202-3533. This column is provided by the OSU Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, OSU Extension, Ohio Agricultural Research & Development Center, and the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.