Imagine a future in which water is dwindling and farmers must harness technology to coax food from the arid soil—one in which high-tech greenhouses dot the desert, solar panels desalinate saltwater for agricultural use, and farmers monitor their crops via satellite.
That future may not be as far off as you think. In some places around the world, it’s already happening.
A burgeoning body of climate change research points toward increases in drought over the next century. Extensive drying over the past decade has sparked predictions that drought frequency will double within the next 40 years and increase threefold by the end of the 21st century. Agricultural production, which is already struggling in many regions, is likely to suffer further as a result, Princeton researchers say.
All this is happening against a backdrop of population growth, changing demographics, and a mounting demand for food, water, and energy, which is expected to increase up to 50 percent by 2030.
“Meeting the increasing demand requires smarter, greener, and more efficient food systems—especially as the climate changes and natural resources become scarcer,” says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The proliferation of climate change data, and the resulting predictions, have spurred a wave of research on desert farming and the development of new technologies to help increase food production while adapting agricultural practices to a drier climate.
“Doubling food production by 2030 will not come from putting more fertile land into production but mainly from sustainably intensifying production—that is, getting more from agricultural lands already in use—and from using marginal lands, such as drylands,” says FAO natural resources officer, Alessandro Flammini.
Increasing desert crop yields
As farm productivity decreases, greenhouse technology is expected to play a massive role in cultivating desert lands for food. Today’s greenhouses are able to leverage climate control solutions to mimic the conditions needed to grow a variety of crops, which no longer need to be limited to their native geographical locations, climates, and seasons.
Climate-controlled greenhouses are also helping to conserve precious water resources. Studies have shown that greenhouses can cut water loss by up to 30 percent and water usage by 50 percent if used in tandem with a drip irrigation system. When proper ventilation is combined with other technologies, such as solar radiation heating, water consumption can be reduced to just 7 percent of what it would be without a greenhouse.
A group of experimental farmers is even testing out greenhouses that can grow food without using any freshwater resources at all. They use an array of sun-tracking solar parabolic mirrors. The mirrors follow the sun and focus their heat on a pipe containing a sealed-in supply of oil. The hot oil heats tanks of seawater pumped up from a few meters below ground. The oil brings the seawater up to 160C and steam from this drives turbine providing electricity. A portion of the hot water from this process heats the greenhouse. The remaining water is fed into a desalination plant that produces 10,000 liters of freshwater per day.
“They appear to have pulled off the ultimate something-from-nothing agricultural feat—using the sun to desalinate seawater for irrigation and to heat and cool greenhouses as required, and thence cheaply grow high-quality, pesticide-free vegetables year-round in commercial quantities,” says Jonathan Margolis, a contributor for The Guardian.
Growing food in greenhouses—particularly in desert climates—requires careful control of temperature, relative humidity levels, ventilation, and carbon dioxide levels to optimize plant growth and ward off disease. Today’s cutting-edge climate control solutions for the food industry help regulate and monitor conditions within greenhouses to promote high yields and prevent food loss. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, inadequate climate control is the number one culprit in food loss, which totaled more than $161 billion in 2010 alone, or about 1,249 calories per person per day.
The more control farmers have over the growing environment, the greater their yield. Temporary climate control solutions can help optimize crops and reduce waste.
Keeping food safe from farm to fork
The need for climate control doesn’t end with the harvest, however. At every step of the food production process, the food needs to remain at optimal temperature and humidity levels to retain freshness and keep the food free of dangerous contaminants.
Polygon helps protect food supplies from farm to fork by providing a range of climate control solutions for the food industry, including:
Transportation. Climate control during the transportation is especially important in desert environments, where long exposure to heat inside a trailer can cause food to spoil. Food needs to be loaded onto environmentally controlled trucks to ensure it arrives safely at its destination, and proper temperatures need to be maintained during the loading, shipping, and offloading phases.
Food processing. Food processing facilities often face problems with moisture, which can carry dangerous contaminants. Too much or too little humidity in the warehouse can significantly reduce the shelf life of products—or even result in total loss. Cold storage dehumidification solutions for the food industry help food processors eliminate condensation and improve shelf life.
Grocery store. Once food hits the grocery store, food handlers rely heavily on refrigeration systems to keep products at safe temperatures. Since a single equipment failure can be devastating, some grocers rely on remote monitoring to provide real-time data on how cold food refrigeration equipment is performing.
As farmers continue to innovate ways to cultivate drought-ridden lands, Polygon’s climate control solutions are there to support the food industry in meeting the nutritional needs of a growing population.