In this news article on That’s Farming, Barry Crackett, product designer at agricultural brush manufacturers, Brushtec, share his insight around underground agriculture, its benefits and how it can be implemented.
Underground agriculture is a new method of farming in urban areas.
Some believe it is also tipped to be the answer to the problem of feeding our growing population, a solution to the effects of climate change and a way to cut down on carbon emissions.
But how exactly does it do this, and is it really that sustainable?
Traditional agriculture not only uses a huge amount of freshwater for irrigation and other purposes, but it also contributes towards water pollution with fertiliser and pesticides (OECD).
As freshwater security is an increasing concern due to rising population density, finding ways to cut down water use is a priority — and hydroponic farming, currently being pioneered by the world’s first underground farm in London, could be one way to do it (University of Cambridge).
Hydroponic farming is a process that involves growing crops in water enriched with nutrients instead of soil.
A farming system that relies so heavily on water may seem like a strange way to cut down on agricultural water use, but in reality, it could be the ideal solution.
This is because hydroponic farms collect and reuse all the water used in their system, so nothing is wasted.
The result is a cheaper method of farming, increased sustainability, a reduced reliance on pesticides, and a much lower risk of contaminants affecting your crop yield.
Underground farming combines hydroponics with a vertical farming system, which allows crops to be grown on top of each other making full use of the vertical space available.
As a result, it takes less floor space to grow more crops — perfect for urban areas with only limited or awkward space available.
Another advantage of growing this way is that you will need fewer heaters and ventilating extractor fans to control the climate of the space than if you were to spread out your crops over a larger area.
Despite relying on lamps, heaters, and fans to simulate an above-ground climate, underground farming can be made carbon neutral.
At its core, growing crops beneath an urban area is a way of getting farms closer to the consumer, significantly reducing food miles and the carbon emissions associated with transporting crops.
Using lights, lamps, and fans all year round allows the farmers to grow seasonal produce, reducing the reliance on imports for off-season goods and creating a more sustainable system for locally grown crops.
To address the high energy use of an underground farm when compared to traditional agriculture, it is important to note that underground farming uses low-consumption LED lights for temperature and warmth and the heaters and fans can be programmed to run only as much and as often as they are needed.
These can all be powered by 100% renewable energy sources to create a green, carbon-neutral farm with no environmental impact.
Underground farming requires constant measuring and adjusting, which helps to make the most of the energy that is used as well as produce a better-quality crop.
Sensor technology and data analysis is used to give crops exactly what they need and when, making them grow quicker and with increased yields.
This maximises the potential of the farm’s resources and ensures no energy is wasted.
This data can also be used to forecast issues and trial different solutions via simulations, keeping the conditions of the real farm stable.
Impact on future farming
In the future, we could expect to see more advanced underground farming systems and technology being used to accommodate essential grains like wheat and maize for large-scale human consumption and animal feed.
The lessons learnt and perfected in underground farms can be applied above ground too, helping traditional farmers save money, energy, water, and space while maximising the quality and yield of their crops.
This could lead to a more sustainable UK farming industry, including micro-farms in semi-rural or urban areas where agricultural land is hard to come by.
Smart farming could also be used to manipulate the taste or nutritional value of certain produce, allowing farmers to customise their product.
Technology can enhance agriculture
Technology cannot replace farming, but it has always been used to enhance how we do it.
For example, at Brushtec, we design and develop innovative brushware for use in agriculture, including vegetable farming, cattle farming, and even mussel farming.
Technology helps us to create custom brushes with bespoke features to meet even the most exacting needs, enabling our agricultural clients to fine-tune their farming practices and increase productivity.
Embracing technology that is currently being trialled in underground farming could be the answer to some of the planet’s most pressing issues, including water and food security and climate change.
So, it is important for modern farmers to stay up to date with the latest developments and implement as many sustainable methods as they can.
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