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Will crops from Flanders cover the surface of Mars?

If, in the future, people live and grow crops on Mars, Urban Crop Solutions will undoubtedly have played a part in achieving this milestone. The Flanders-based company from Waregem specializes in developing technology that makes it possible to grow any type of crop in containers and buildings anywhere in the world. The agri-food innovator might even take its expertise to another world, as it has also sparked the interest of American space agency NASA.  

Vertical container farm

Indoor vertical farming

What Urban Crop Solutions does seems to come right from a science fiction series. “We deliver solutions for indoor vertical farming,” explains founder Maarten Vandecruys. “When using our containers, or PlantFactories, you can fully regulate the climate conditions the crops are subject to. So, you no longer depend on external factors and weather conditions for growing crops. In short, no more waiting to see whether or not it will rain and – because the containers are sealed – no more pathogenic bacteria and plant disease to fight. 

“The modular PlantFactories are especially useful in highly urbanized areas, as they take up little space and can be stacked,” adds global sales director Brecht Stubbe. “In addition, the solution currently offers some 220 cultivation processes that are scientifically backed. As such, they can automatically determine how much fertilizer and water is required for each type of crop, and define the ideal temperature, light intensity and color, irrigation, growing substrates, etc. What’s more, water is recycled on site. As a result, the PlantFactories only need about 5% of the water used in traditional agriculture.”  

Clients across the globe

There are currently 28 operational PlantFactories in North America, Europe and Asia and requests for new collaborations are coming in almost daily. Vandecruys: “Our strength lies in the fact that we offer both the technological systems and the necessary plant biological knowledge. Of the 17 people we now employ, a team of 4 biologists is working full time on researching new applications and perfecting the crops.”  

Thanks to its high level of expertise in multiple domains, Urban Crop Solutions has acquired clients in both academia and the world of agribusiness. Brecht Stubbe: “One example is the University of Leuven, which is using our systems and knowhow to run a project in which banana plants are grown from sprout to up to half a meter high, while being made more resistant.”  

“Closer to our HQ in Flanders,” Stubbe adds, “one of our installations is deployed at the Maelstede banquet hall in Kuurne, where specific herbs are grown for use in the kitchen. Another example: in Sweden, three Ikea shops are already equipped with PlantFactories to grow the leaf lettuce used by in-store restaurants. Meanwhile, PLNT – an indoor vertical farm in Antwerp, one of Flanders’ main cities – uses our containers to grow high-end garden herbs for starred restaurants. Furthermore, bakery supplier Puratos contacted us a while ago to ask us whether wheat and grain can also be grown using our products. Those aren’t the most obvious crops, but it is possible!”  

A space bakery is just a matter of time

“Our way of working delivers high returns,” Vandecruys continues. “Crops grow faster and, due to the ideal conditions, also have more intense flavor. For example, we are currently experimenting with strawberries. They have a sweetness value that is 1.5 times higher than regular strawberries. We can also make crops more nutritious. For instance, with our technology, it’s possible to give spinach up to 30% more iron.”  

This feature didn’t go unnoticed by American space agency NASA. Vandecruys: “Together with various partners, we have set up an R&D consortium called ‘Space Bakery’. Our goal is to map out how we can grow nutrient-rich crops as efficiently as possible. In addition, we will study aspects that play a role in the entire food production cycle in space and on planets like Mars. These include the use and recycling of raw materials, monitoring the microbial climate and the influence of radiation, pollination via automated drone, and so on.”  

“NASA could choose to develop this technology itself,” Vandecruys adds, “but  at Urban Crop Solutions, we already have a lot of in-house knowledge. That’s why they’re reaching out to us. It’s truly an honor, because this proves that we’re working on something groundbreaking.”  

Meeting with NASA rescheduled

A meeting between NASA and Urban Crop Solutions was planned in Waregem (Flanders) in April 2020, but had to be cancelled due to the worldwide coronavirus outbreak. Vandecruys: “The meeting has been postponed to fall 2020. There’s no rush: our project will run for another 2.5 years, so we still have plenty of time to discuss a possible collaboration. But I must admit that it would be fantastic to support space travel and see one of our PlantFactories make it to Mars.”  

More info

Urban Crop Solutions
Reported by
newspaper De Krant van West-Vlaanderen
6 May 2020

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