How is an astronaut similar to a tomato farmer? They both need to reuse their raw materials, proclaims researcher Angelo Vermeulen in Dutch newspaper Het Algemeen Dagblad. The Belgian biologist will be giving lectures at the World Horti Centre starting on 19 January. He will be presenting seven knowledge sessions, open to the public, examining what the horticulture sector can learn from the Aerospace industry.

According to Vermeulen the methods used in outer space should be copied on earth as well as by the horticulture sector. ‘It is simply impossible to take everything you want along with you to outer space. Therefore, you must be able to reuse everything you have. The general answer to this question is therefore: circular thinking.’

The circular greenhouse

Vermeulen is of the opinion that the horticulture sector should switch to a fully closed ecosystem. ‘In which waste water is purified to serve as a raw material, for example. Plant waste is transformed into nutrients for new plants, and solar heat serves as a source of energy. To put it briefly, a greenhouse in which everything is reused, nothing is lost and the environment is spared to the greatest possible extent. Exactly in the same way that we set to work in outer space.’ If it were up to Vermeulen, greenhouses like this will be available in 20 years’ time. ‘The objective of my lectures is to bridge the gap between science and day-to-day practice. There are enough concepts available for a circular greenhouse, but their practical application will take years to implement. Why is this so? A lack of knowledge, and everything is still rather fuzzy.’

Reuse of water

One of the subjects that Vermeulen will investigate in his lectures at the World Horti Centre is the reuse of water. ‘Water reuse is perhaps the most important subject in environments like that on Mars. You have to be very frugal, just as in a greenhouse. Reusing water, or recirculating it, is not yet the standard in the greenhouse horticulture sector, even though there are already many greenhouses that do reuse water. It is the intention that all farmers will be putting this into practice in the long term. Water should be used more frequently as a substrate, for example.’

Farming in space

According to the biologist, there is no room for chemical crop protection agents in a circular greenhouse. Additionally, the farmer – just as an astronaut on Mars – will have to cope with space constraints. ‘This will become part of horticulture in the future: growing crops in an urban environment, resulting in a shorter production chain. This can be directly compared to the infrastructure needed to grow crops on the moon or on Mars: making optimum use of the limited space available and a high degree of controllability.’
Seed grower Rijk Zwaan has already had some of its seeds projected into space by NASA to discover how seeds can germinate and plants can grow without gravity. But will we actually start growing food in space? ‘Certainly, there is no doubt about it. And that’s why it would be a good idea to start making all our systems circular right now,’ concludes Vermeulen.

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Source: AD/LTO Glaskracht. Photo: The New York Hall of Science/Wikimedia.