Could open source agriculture revolutionize the industry?

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Open source agriculture could redefine how plants are developed and produced.

The terms “open source” and “open source technology” are most often used when referring to the development of computer software. Computer software source code is what programmers use to change how a software program or application operates. Attorney Andrew St. Laurent in his book “Understanding open source and free software licensing” explains open source computer software is a type of software in which source code is released under a license. The software’s copyright holder allows users the rights to study, change and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose.

An increasing number of Japanese companies in the indoor agriculture industry are realizing they need to work together as an industry while at the same time running their own businesses.
Photo courtesy of Japan Plant Factory Association

A State of Enterprise Open Source survey released by Red Hat in April 2019 found that 99 percent of information technology leaders considered open source software to be “somewhat important” to their company’s IT strategy. One of the advantages to open source development is the potential for a more flexible technology and quicker innovation.

Opportunities for sharing knowledge, technology

What if the concepts associated with open source technology were adapted by the controlled environment agriculture industry?

“Most of the current systems/technologies in the plant factory with artificial lighting (PFAL)/vertical farm/indoor ag industry are similar to each other with most applications coming from the greenhouse or conventional hydroponic industry,” said Eri Hayashi, vice president and director of international relations and consulting at the Japan Plant Factory Association (JPFA). “As we are still in the initial stage of a promising indoor ag industry, we need more opportunities for knowledge/experience sharing, standardization, education and collaboration to move the industry forward. More importantly, we need a more distributed network for innovation to work together to develop new innovation.

“In Japan, after years of industry experience, things are changing becoming more collaborative. Many companies are realizing that they will need to work together as an industry while at the same time running their own businesses.”

Hayashi said JPFA has been organizing several committee meetings, including one research committee on productivity improvement of PFAL.

“The committee is defining the terms and indexes used in the industry including efficiency in electric energy, labor, and cultivation space and time. Currently farms and countries are using different terms and indexes to compare productivity.

“The JPFA productivity committee is working with Japan’s major PFAL operators to discuss how to improve productivity. They are looking at how each factor/parameter affects each other to improve productivity of the farms. It is fascinating that these companies are actually open to sharing their experiences. English versions of the JPFA committee’s reports on terminology and indexes and productivity questionnaires will be available soon.”

Niels Lauwers at 30MHz said knowledge sharing between growers is occurring daily across different crops, markets and continents.
Photo courtesy of 30MHz

Sharing roadblocks

Niels Lauwers, vice president of marketing at 30MHz, an agricultural-technology provider in the Netherlands, said the controlled environment ag industry has always commercialized products it has developed whether it’s technology, knowledge or distribution.

“Whenever a new technology is developed, a lot of companies indirectly involved with the problems this technology solves try to get a piece of the commercial pie it generates,” Lauwers said. “This occurs regardless of whether it’s a justified call for the companies to make or not. These companies often already have a big market share, which might be overlapping in certain areas, and feel they have the obligation/responsibility to be concerned with the development of the new technology. This results in the delayed technological development of cultivation. Instead of embracing and adopting new technologies created by young companies that do not necessarily have an agricultural background, the sector relies on the way it has been incorporating novelties as usual. This leads to a situation in which development is just not going fast enough.

Lauwers said many growers and breeders aren’t interested in providing their competition with additional information or technology.

“This is especially the case when they know their cultivation processes are generating the maximum amount of produce possible while using the least possible amount of resources,” he said. “For instance, although most vegetable produce in the Netherlands is distributed based on fixed contracts, it’s the vegetable overproduction that generates a significant amount of revenue growers can invest into their businesses. In the UK and U.S. however, there is never a commitment from retailers to purchase the goods at fixed prices. In this case, fluctuations can be positive or negative, leading to a more competitive market.”

Lauwers said from a political perspective, sharing technology could hurt a country’s economic situation.

“Sharing knowledge about processes represents a lot of export value,” he said. “The political view is very much influenced by local agricultural lobbies.”

Making information accessible

Hayashi said as the agriculture industry transitions to a digital platform, open sourcing/open data is a great fit particularly for the PFAL industry.

“Since PFAL production is conducted in nearly an airtight and thermally well insulated facility, inputs, outputs, waste and resource-use efficiency can be continuously measured online,” she said. “This production measurement is described in detail in the book “Smart Plant Factory” by Dr. Toyoki Kozai. Visualizing the interaction of plants with the environment and humans/machines should be relatively easier than other agricultural and horticultural production methods. In this data-rich industry, each farm is continuously generating quality data while growing plants.

“PFAL growers can use open sourcing/open data to strengthen their businesses by minimizing their risks, challenges and resources while maximizing and/or concentrating on their strengths.”

Hayashi said the primary obstacle facing the industry is the lack of sound information or knowledge based on science/academia that can be shared and is accessible to growers.

“There are an endless number of set point combinations for environmental control,” she said. “These combinations are based on a multiple number of factors including crops/cultivars, environmental conditions (light, temperature and nutrient solution composition and strength), phenotypic traits and plant design goals (nutrition, flavor, structure) among others. It’s almost impossible for growers and researchers to trial all the conditions. What is needed is a shared platform that is accessible for everyone who wants to contribute or needs the data.”

Digitalizing knowledge on a global level leads to situations in which knowledge sharing and learning become low cost and almost seamless.
Photo courtesy of 30MHz

Lauwers said 30MHz aims to digitize growers by giving them the tools that translate their data into intelligence and improved knowledge.

“The increasing speed of knowledge gathering has a significant effect on feedback loops,” he said. “In an ever changing world and not to mention environment, having faster feedback loops will be essential for any agri-business. On a global level, digitalizing knowledge leads to situations in which exchanging this “new gold” becomes low cost and almost seamless, democratizing the barriers to knowledge sharing and learning.”

Lauwers said knowledge sharing doesn’t just happen in specific crop communities such as between lettuce growers. Growers are learning and sharing ideas with each other on a daily basis across different crops, markets and continents.

“A Dutch pepper grower who prevented sunscald on his peppers with digital findings from fruit temperature sensors, empowered ornamental growers to reduce losses from stress diseases like pansy mottle syndrome,” he said. “The same practice to reduce fruit temperatures using shade screens and climate control worked well to reduce stress induced losses (blindness) in the ornamental industry too.

“This use-case with ornamental growers went on to inspire soft fruit growers struggling with diseases like powdery mildew. The concept of reducing stress events by managing vapor pressure deficit (VPD) can also reduce the chances of powdery mildew in soft fruit. This not only led to improvements in production but also reduction in costs from having to spray chemicals to prevent the onset of damaging diseases. A marginal gain can have a butterfly effect in returns.”

Benefits beyond the ag industry

Lauwers expects it will take some time for big institutions that control the agricultural agenda to shift toward a new way of cooperation.

“If open source touches base, it will open the playing field,” he said, “It will undoubtedly improve innovation and speed up that innovation cycle too.

“In an ideal world, open source knowledge undoubtedly improves quality through faster learning, improved productivity and doing more with less. For instance, time and resources are not wasted on companies doing the same projects and R&D.”

Hayashi said open source/open data will allow each grower, breeder, researcher and retailer along with the public to be connected and to interact with each other.

“This open source technology will not only enable on-demand plant production, but it also possesses great potential to change the breeding/seed industry to allow PFAL operators to become more involved with the breeding process,” she said. “It is expected that all participants including growers can create more self-sustaining communities and businesses.

“Open databases will create a smart PFAL ecosystem in conjunction with various plant data service businesses for data processing, application software development, social business, entertainment, education, science-based art, personalized medicine, plant-based smart community and people’s welfare in a sustainable society.”

For more: Eri Hayashi, Japan Plant Factory Association, ehayashi@npoplantfactory.org; https://npoplantfactory.org. Niels Lauwers, 30MHz, Niels@30mhz.com; https://www.30mhz.com.

This article is property of Urban Ag News and was written by David Kuack, a freelance technical writer from Fort Worth, TX.

What is vapor pressure deficit?

Vapor pressure deficit (VPD) is the difference (deficit) between the amount of moisture in the air and the amount of moisture the air can hold when it is saturated. VPD is an indicator of the condensation potential. It quantifies how close the controlled environment air (i.e. greenhouse or indoor plant factory) is to saturation.
The air is saturated when it reaches maximum water holding capacity at a given temperature (also called the dew point). Adding moisture to the air beyond its holding capacity leads to deposition of liquid water somewhere in the system.
A high VPD means that the air can still hold a large amount of water. A low VPD indicates the air is near saturation. A VPD of zero means the air is 100 percent saturated and plants cannot transpire effectively.
Greenhouse Condensation Control: Understanding and Using Vapor Pressure Deficit (VPD),” Ohio St. Univ. Ext. Fact Sheet
Why should greenhouse growers pay attention to vapor-pressure deficit and not relative humidity?,” Michigan St. Univ. Ext.

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