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Roquette Science: How computerized arugula farms take over the world (2018) (anthropocenemagazine.org)
78 points by zeristor 12 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments





Why not grow hydroponically with the Kratky method instead? It's basically the Ronco Rotisserie of hydroponics - just set it and forget it.

This is a fairly good intro video to the method:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqtXLiSCsQE

I only spent ~£30 on all of the supplies to set up my system and have grown lettuce, rocket, spinach, tomatillos, and peppers in my apartment. It's fantastic and simple and will allow me to have a supply of fresh green food after Brexit.

If you’re interested in hoby hydroponics, it’s a great way to start.

Here's a link to the original Kratky paper on the method:

https://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/hawaii/downloads/Three_Non-circ...


Cool! Can you roughly estimate how much electrical power it takes to grow some of these from seed to edible item? Thanks!

Depends on the lights you use and how efficiently you are using them. I use a simple kitchen light led system mounted under the kitchen cabinet to grow some herbs. 450 lumen, nothing fancy, just ordinary white kitchen leds. The system is rated at 14 W. So that's 0.014 kwh. It's on for about two thirds of a day. So, a month of running this would cost me about 7 kwh/month. Depending where you live that's about a 1-2$ in electricity cost per month. Low enough that I did not actually look up my KWH price so can't tell you down to the cent. But cheap enough and I like having fresh herbs around.

I've been running this over a month now. It's mainly a proof of concept before I invest in some proper led grow lights next winter. Works great so far, my basil plants are doing fine and will move to the balcony when the temperatures rise a bit. There's enough room to have two or three small plants below the lights. Two healthy basil plants translate into an enormous amount of pesto if you treat them well. I must have harvested several kilos last year by the end of the summer. That's starting with two anemic supermarket plants.

This improvised kratky system probably uses a bit more. I would say it's probably 10x or worse. I've seen some fluorescent systems similar to what the lady in the video uses starting at 140W. But you can get bigger lights. LEDs are probably more efficient for the same amount of lumen.


From what I've read, lettuce is pretty happy living in shade with only a small amount of direct sunlight every day. I imagine you'd be fine to grow in a window and use no power at all.

Indoor farming looks pretty promising, but we shouldn't be building indoor farms in the middle of dense cities.

If you live in a high-cost city, the best thing to grow in your backyard from an environmental standpoint is probably an ADU (backyard cottage for someone to live in), and the best thing to grow in your spare bedroom is probably a roommate. Displacing walking-distance housing to do farming is a huge loser from a climate perspective.

Of course there is more to life than emitting as little CO2 as possible, but to the extent that urban farming has environmental benefits, it is in exploiting niches caused by shitty land use decisions in the past and present.

(By way of illustration, the average car commuting 20 miles each way every weekday for a year emits 4.6 metric tons of CO2, so according to the article you could grow and transport something like four and a half tons of greens for the same carbon footprint. Maybe I'm weird but that's a lot more than I go through in a year.)


Depends, people seem to appreciate being surrounded by green stuff for esthetic reasons. And there also positive side effects on air quality. You can actually improve air quality in a lot of buildings simply by doing some indoor/vertical farming. IMHO it would improve most offices I've been in. Also more green outdoors, would probably be not a bad idea in many cities. I was debating this with a friend some time ago while looking at the blank wall of an apartment across his street. Unused vertical space blasted by the sun most of the day. It gets hot indoor because of that. A layer of green would definitely help. Add water and nutrients and you have a farm waiting to happen. Also, it might look pretty and provide some space for birds and other critters.

The point being here is that this is not a zero sum game; there are many benefits to growing stuff other than producing food.

A lot of the vegetables grown in Dutch greenhouses mentioned in the article are actually exported; though other countries are starting to do the same now.

This area here is the most well known and largest greenhouse area in the Netherlands (and probably world wide). It's comparatively tiny (about 100 square KM). https://www.google.com/maps/@51.986133,4.233423,25389m/data=... https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/details.php?id=PIA21986

The reason greenhouses are used there is because they produce way more per square meter than traditional farms can. That and access to cheap gas decades ago caused a boom in greenhouses to happen. Currently many of these greenhouses are switching from gas to clean energy. Over the last 4-5 decades, local farmers have optimized their production and they now run very efficiently.

The Netherlands is (by far) the largest exporter of tomatoes world wide. Most of those are grown in these and similar facilities as well as many other crops (i.e. this is not dedicated to just tomatoes). It's a vastly more efficient way to use land. The point here is that it doesn't take much space to feed a city.


Yes, to be fair, there probably are some exploitable niches unrelated to crappy land use (which I should point out is much more common in the parts of the US that co-evolved with the automobile).

For example, fresh herbs cost a fortune in grocery stores here, and are festooned with single-use plastic packaging, and come in far larger quantities than one can reasonably use before they go bad. So it makes tons of sense to have a little herb garden in your house or yard, especially if you can grow things that are adapted to your local climate (e.g. my rosemary bush is taller than I am).

But I think the optimal scale inside of expensive cities is probably closer to "houseplants that you can eat" rather than an urban farm.


Lots of cities have land that previously saw industrial use and is essentially unused at the moment. Sure, it might be better if people lived there but maybe they don't want to.

Minor caveat: make sure to perform soil testing on post-industrial soil, if you're using it

For the love of dirt just go outside and plant some vegetables. With half the loving care that you put into your tech you can have a beautiful productive garden.

My mother is an amazing gardener because she pays careful attention to her crops and applies reasoning and careful experimentation to grow her knowledge.

Have patience, read up, and dig in. You can grow things yourself too.

Perhaps I’m becoming a Luddite...


If you have a house with space for a garden and the time to dedicate gardening, sure. You can grow some things in an apartment even, but not much. Taking the labor, time, and space requirements out of food production is a huge deal, especially today. If computerized farming means fresher and cheaper vegetables in the city, why shouldn't we use that?

Go to Ikea and but a system, no need for robotics or PID controllers, complex webbased control console or any of that. Just plastic planter and a light, you’ll have fresh lettuce with little trouble in no time.

Power efficiency for one.

There's a table in the article about the Net carbon emissions of indoor vs outdoor farming, claiming a total of 1.1 for outdoor vs 1.0 for indoor.

I wouldn't trust that table.

1) I redid the calculations using the numbers shown in the table. With more decimal places, it's 1.054 for outdoor and 1.036 for indoor. The actual penalty for outdoor growing, using their own input numbers, is more like 1.7% than 10%. Presenting the results rounded to 1 decimal place is misleading.

2) The only reason indoor comes out ahead at all is that they gave indoor lettuce a 0.18 kg credit for sequestered CO2 and gave the outdoor lettuce no credit. Plants absorb CO2 while growing regardless of whether they are indoor or outdoor. In the case of lettuce, there is no long term sequestration anyway; the plant matter is soon converted back to CO2 when it's metabolized by humans or microbes. Setting both indoor and outdoor sequestration credits to 0, indoor has a CO2 footprint of 1.253, significantly larger than outdoor's 1.054.

The original source for the table is cited as a blog article from the Breakthrough Institute titled "Don't Count Out Vertical Farms." I tried going back to the original source to see if the numbers were misrepresented here, or if they had more justification in the original, but the Breakthrough Institute appears to have removed the article from their site. Existing links to it 404 now.


Looks like they changed the link along the way:

https://thebreakthrough.org/issues/food/vertical-farms-raise...


Thanks. It appears that the sequestration credit for vertical farming presumes that agricultural land formerly used for lettuce will be converted to a forest. That's questionable but not crazy.

It gets worse when you look at the footnotes. They assume that the electricity going to the vertical farm is produced at the Swedish average carbon intensity per kWh. Sweden is far below the OECD average for electrical energy carbon intensity:

http://www.compareyourcountry.org/climate-policies?cr=oecd&l...

Only Switzerland, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway have low enough electrical carbon intensities for vertical farming to have a smaller carbon footprint, even conceding the re-forestation assumption.


This advice is good but geographically bound. It's hard to grow veggies year-round in Minnesota. It is not great to transport oranges and warm weather crops hundreds or thousands of miles (both for carbon impact and quality).

You have a point about quality, but I don't think that there is anywhere in the US where the CO2 emissions from growing warm weather crops under artificial lighting are lower than those of importing said crops from places where they can grow outdoors.

Growing under artificial lighting can produce crops that don't need to endure prolonged storage and shipment. Some people will pay a flavor-and-quality premium for things like fresh tomatoes, salad greens, and herbs that can be grown this way near the point of consumption. But the bombast about remaking the "global food system" this way is ridiculous. The vast majority of crops, measured either by dollar value or by calories eaten by humans, are not going to be grown this way. For most crops it would greatly increase the cost and the fossil fuel consumption if they were grown under artificial lighting, and there wouldn't even be a corresponding quality improvement to motivate buyers.

The article even says as much:

In fact, all things considered, says Mark Bomford, director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, “it’s generally a lower-impact proposition to move food around the planet than to move the climate.”


That depends on what you do with the excess heat from the grow lights. For example, if you were growing vegetables in the basement of your house, the heat from the lights would rise to heat the living space. You'd wind up using more or less the same amount of CO2 as required on heating alone, but you also end up with food to eat.

Onions, leeks and tubers can be harvested all winter. Gourds stay fresh for a long time even without refrigeration. Of course there is such a thing as planting season but it is perfectly feasible to be an avid gardener in a cold climate. No one is asking you to grow oranges but there are heirloom tomatoes and many other summer crops that can thrive in Minnesota. Having the soil be almost unusable all winter is good for the soil. It’s some of the best dirt in the world. If New Yorkers who don’t own a single inch of outdoor property can grow tomatoes then so can anyone anywhere in the midwest.

Sure, like you can just go out there with a pick-axe and try and get your potatoes because the ground is frozen solid.

Aside from being a shallow dismissal this comment demonstrates an unmistakable unfamiliarity with the subject. How one can have such a strong opinion on something they know so little about is beyond me. Frozen dirt is brittle and easy to dislodge, it is only difficult if you need to dig a post hole or something of limited width.

You clearly have not experienced an actual winter, just some weak-sauce facsimile, the sort you might get in northern Virginia.

If I wanted to get potatoes right now from the back yard dirt I'd have to remove about two feet of hard-packed ice and snow, then chisel into dirt that may as well be concrete. At least solid ice and concrete respect a pick. Wet, frozen dirt just shrugs it off.

Let me remind you that this year in places like Minnesota it was -60°F outside. Good luck getting anything out of the ground in those conditions. Even a backhoe is going to have trouble. I'd suggest using dynamite, but at those temperatures even dynamite won't work without being heated up first.


Please don't cross into snark or personal swipes. Your comment would be just fine without the bits at the beginning and end.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Fair enough. I'd edit it if I could.

I've opened it for editing so you can change it now.

You got it.

Going outside is great if you own a yard, but it's totally doable inside too. One doesn't really need a lot of tech to grow vegetables indoor, some hydroponic systems like Kratky method require just a minimal initial effort and zero technology (just some light source, e.g. a window facing south, a little water and some fertilizers). Or even simpler, if you own an aquarium you can grow organic lettuce on top of it, I did that for a while with a lot of success. It's also helping the fish by filtering the water, so it's totally a win-win situation.

It's not mutually exclusive. I basically tore out my lawn and grow veggies every year, but I also grow other stuff indoors. There are times I want lettuce but don't want to worry about sudden cold snaps, for instance. Or get my seeds started indoors before transferring them outdoors.

And the study that suggests indoor grown can be less carbon intense is super interesting.


The real win here is toxins and sanitation.

A big dirty secret is that organic crops fail at both. Farmers buy special organic pesticides, for example toxic plant juice. The fertilizer is often poo.

These indoor farms are kept bug-free. They should also be free of rats and birds. If a bird craps on your lettuce, there is no way to really fully sanitize that without destroying the lettuce. You can wash it so that it looks nice and people will eat it, but you will never make it safe.

The farmers themselves are also a problem of course, particularly the lowest-paid workers who often don't get proper treatment for diseases and often don't really understand or care about sanitation. Indoor farms allow an easier transition to automation, which would greatly reduce this disease risk.


It's hard to do by hand, what a commercial grower does at enormous scale. Sure you can have (a few) tasty vegetables, but nothing like enough for your entire diet? It takes like 400 sq ft to grow enough vegetables for one person-year. That would be a lot of work.

Lacking technology to do things any better would excuse us for having that kind of attitude, but we happen to do have technology. We'll need the knowledge and experience of growing stuff on a mass scale artificial environments.

For the love of dirt just go outside and plant some vegetables

Or even do it inside.

I mostly work in climate inhospitable to farming, so I can't have a garden in my yard. But I still grow radishes, wheatgrass, and other small edible things in mason jars between the monitors and gadgets on my desk at work.

That's how the office found out one of my coworkers is terrified of crickets.


Your phrasing "loving care" brought to mind a relevant poem:

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/09/weeke...


Rocket is pretty easy to grow as well - if I can manage to grow decent quantities of it outside in Scotland then it must be pretty easy to grow!

How about the CO2 footprint of the building, ventilation systems, lamps, cameras, sensors, electronics etc?

Not 0 of course but you can amortize a lot of that over a lot of time and weigh it against e.g. transportation cost, the cost of intensively farmed soil not capturing any carbon because it is over fertilized, compacted, and sprayed with poison, the cost of producing fertilizer, poison, and fuel needed for operating the machines, etc. There are two sides to this coin.

Interesting - there was a ready-made pun there, and they mangled it in the headline. In the UK it's just called rocket, not roquette https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eruca_sativa

I independently came up with the same pun just last week! I'm disappointed to learn that I wasn't the first after all.

This is a good start. Like any nascent operation, there is plenty of room for efficiency improvements.

What would be really cool to see is an offshoot of this tech for greenhouses, or rooms with piped in sunlight, or leveraging geothermal energy, etc. Micro machines for apartments... So many possibilities!


Worth reading if only for the nice play on the words arugula and roquette in the title. If you are not amused, you should read your seed catalog.

Most of the responses here are missing an important point.

Yes, you can grow leafy greens semi-profitably in urban environments, or in your garage.

How many calories do those leafy greens contain? Calories are what keep eight billion people alive. You may be able to grow salad garnish in your office, but good luck growing the 2,200 calories/day that the average adult needs.

There's no transition from this, to actually useful agriculture, just like how there's no transition from throwing a Frisbee, to putting a satellite in orbit.


to actually useful agriculture

Sorry.. are you saying the 'eat leafy green vegetables' thing is wrong? I understand your underlying concern is the lack of calories, but we don't eat purely for calorific content: vegetables have vitamins and fibre without which we get unhealthy.

Your 'useful' is what worries me. Please don't eat a diet absent any greens except on doctors advice.


If you eat nothing but empty carbs, you will die.

However, growing calories is hard. It's really hard. It's just about impossible to, outside of a real, outdoor, field.

And we need to do it, to keep people fed. It's the hard part of feeding people. Urban farming of a small number of high-vitamin, low calorie crops doesn't solve a problem that anyone is likely to have.


If the vision is to replace normal agriculture, I agree. If indoor growing is in addition to it, that seems less over-optimistic. Creating new arable land is not easy, repurposing abandoned buildings is (even building new warehouse-style empty boxes is pretty efficient, especially if they could be used for something else if the indoor farming boom fails to materialize).

Surprisingly, $1.5B worth of lettuce was produce in the US in 2017.

https://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/vegetables/lettuc...


$2 of lettuce (~1lb) buys you 63 calories.

$2 of rice (~3lb, uncooked) buys you 5,000 calories.

Lettuce is a garnish cash crop you can grow under a lamp in your garage. Rice is what will keep you alive, though.


"Why vertical farming wont save the world" - Nuff said!

https://youtu.be/ISAKc9gpGjw


These systems all feel like the worst parts of failed industrial automation projects. They take something that is extremely simple (growing lettuce) and claim to make it “easy” by attaching robotic watering systems and lighting systems that “work automatically” which then ends up being a very timeconsuming hobby project to keep alive.

Gardening isn’t all that hard in the first place. Put seeds in the ground, water occasionally. If you buy a sprinkler you’ll have a more reliable system than 90% of these arduino based 3d printers hacked into “growing systems”. Of cause for all the startups the focus is on the “IOT crowdsourced disruption” not about actual end user value.




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