Categories SNA Faculty
For anyone who lives in a suburban area, it must be a bit disconcerting to see farmland disappear with every new subdivision that is built.
If we want to operate in a more sustainable manner and encourage more consumption of local products, then the answer should be to find better use for the resources we currently have, especially in urban centres.
Lufa Farms is an example of resourceful thinking that puts unused space in the city to work. Operating a 31,000 square foot rooftop greenhouse in Montreal, they grow 40 different varieties and can provide produce for 2000 people, even in winter.
So here are a few of the key points to this operation:
- They collect rain water and the water used in irrigation and re-use it so that water is not wasted and as a result they do not draw on any of the city’s water
- They do not use any synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides and instead, use beneficial insects like lady bugs and biological products to keep pests away
- In winter, they use natural gas and energy curtains in a manner which requires less energy than traditional greenhouses. They also have the advantage that the city’s temperature in winter tends to be higher due to the collective heat from the heated homes and buildings and the thermal mass of the roads and buildings built together.
- They also save on transportation and packing costs as their clients live in their neighborhood. It does not get any more local than that.
- In summer, they work with local field farmers to increase the variety of items they provide for their customers
So this all sound pretty good, right? For the most part, it is.
The biggest issue is that these are greenhouse plants and while it is not exactly clear how much of it is grown hydroponically, nutritionally neither hydroponic plant or plants grown in dirt in a greenhouse can compare to the plants, grown in ground, that have had to battle mother nature.
It is easy for greenhouse farmers to supply the basic nutrients to a plant.
Lufa has a compost program and hydroponics is basically feeding plants living in water nutrients they would have receive from the soil. However, there are two nutritional elements that may not develop as well in a greenhouse.
The first is fibre. They do not mention this on their website but it appears that there could be wind elements allowed, at least in the summer but not in winter. Wind is essential for the development of strong stems in plants that grow above the ground.
Have you even noticed that during a wind storm, when huge tree branches are snapping like toothpicks, that the smaller plants blow back and forth but they do not break? This is nature’s way of protecting these plants so they survive.
The healthier the plant, the stronger the stem and this strength comes from fibre. This is important for plants where we eat the plant’s stem like lettuce.
If you have ever eaten lettuce grown hydroponically or in a greenhouse, you will have noticed that they just not have the same crunch as the lettuce grown in the field and this is because they did not spend enough time battling the wind.
This is a nutritional concern for quite a number of plants like kale, spinach, swiss chard, rhubarb and many other above ground plants where we consume the stems.
However, the bigger concern is the phyto-nutrient content. Indoor farming does have an advantage when it comes to avoiding pest but not all pests. You may think that is a good thing but it’s not. Phytonutrients or phytochemicals are plant compounds that are part of the plant’s immune system.
They increase in number as the plant defends itself from attacks by bugs, bacteria, viruses and fungi. If the plant survives, it will have a very high content of these compounds. It may not look very pretty or uniform but then who said that healthy food is supposed to be pretty.
Currently, the phytonutrients are of great interest to researchers. Every time there is a news item about the health benefits of a food like blueberries or broccoli, the report is about the benefits of the phytonutrients they have been studying in the food.
There are many different families with many different names and they represent the colour and the flavour of the plant as well. Growing in a greenhouse can hinder the development of these chemicals and it would be interesting to see the difference between organically-grown field vegetables and fruits and those grown hydroponically or in dirt in a greenhouse.
It is important to know what the research is showing about these compounds and every plant has many different ones. They act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, blood sugar stabilizers and they help our immune system fight disease.
They have been link to helping the prevention of every common disease today including heart disease and cancer and we get only about 17% of the amount we use to get 100 years ago, if we are eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables or actually eating any fruits or vegetables.
So while I applaud the use of space this greenhouse represents and the environmental aspects that Lufa Farms has taken into consideration, they need to know more about the nutrition of plants to makes sure they are not advocating practices that deprive us of valuable nutrients.
Let’s hope the conversation regarding the nutrition of the entire plants starts happening soon so it can makes its way into the planning of inventive farms like Lufa.
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