You may not realize this, but most fruits and vegetables are still living when you eat them — this is what keeps them from turning mushy and limp. In a new study, researchers from Rice University have shown that these plants are not only living, but their metabolism continues to cycle in response to light/dark periods, influencing their nutritional quality:
“Vegetables and fruits don’t die the moment they are harvested,” said Rice biologist Janet Braam, the lead researcher on a new study this week in Current Biology. “They respond to their environment for days, and we found we could use light to coax them to make more cancer-fighting antioxidants at certain times of day.”
When I think of food grown in a greenhouse, my mind tends to think of bland, spongy hot-house tomatoes that were harvested and gassed with ethylene and shipped from too far away. This never made much sense to me, because I could imagine growing much higher profit foods near a large market for fresh foods if a little technology were applied. I recall having an extended conversation with one of my Ph.D. advisors about just such a plan. His training was in both biology and electrical engineering, and he envisioned refrigerator-sized devices in which restaurants or households would one day grow their own greens all year round. In the past few weeks, I’ve read a few articles about companies that are aiming for the same target.
In one example, a company called Gotham Greens has transformed an abandoned rooftop bowling alley in Brooklyn into a production greenhouse with an advanced hydroponic growing system. Rooftop gardens are really fascinating, but most that I’ve heard about are not growing food at production scale. Gotham Greens provides fresh greens and herbs to NYC restaurants and upscale grocery stores, and it sounds like they sell everything they can grow already and are looking for more roof space.
In another example, a company based in Atlanta called PodPonics, retrofits a hydroponic system into standard shipping containers. They claim they can grow an acre’s worth of produce in a 320 square foot area. Their system is more intriguing to me because they’re supplying not only the hydroponic solution, but also controlling CO2 and regulating temperature, humidity, and pH. And because all of this is within a closed container, they’re also delivering the light. Their vision is to be able to install these near major distributors and feed fresh produce directly into the supply chain.
To me, this is an interesting twist on the concept of local food, although probably not what most people envision for that concept. I’m most intrigued by the PodPonics concept, mainly because I could see these pods being plugged into a power source in Fargo in January and cranking out a better salad than one shipped in from Salinas, CA or South America, and that’s worth paying attention to.