Byspire – producer of hydroponic vegetables and herbs

by admin on 31/10/2017

Photo by Fornebu Foto (Srdjan Popovic).

I first got to know about BySpire  when I got an email from Funde, which is a Norwegian crowdfunding site. As usual, we could give various amounts of money and we would get a reward in return, depending on how much we gave. I noticed that they would reduce import of vegetables and herbs and grow them inside all year using hi-tech vertical cultivation aka vertical gardening. Since the growing season in Norway lasts roughly from May to October, I really want to grow my own greenery in winter or buy it from someone who does it in my country instead of importing it from a temperate country, like the Mediterranean countries, from which it’s far from easy to know how it has been produced. Next, I gave them enough to get 3 herbs a week for 10 weeks from August to December 2017.

Since late September, I have been to Byspire weekly or biweekly to get my share of delicious salads and basil. Of course, I have looked at their vertical garden, consisting of wooden shelves and trays with herbs lit by blue, green and red LED lamps for 18 hours a day in order to make the plants grow. Besides, they add tap water and nutrients consisting of a mixture of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The seeds are sowed in small pieces of either mineral wool or coir and put in a nursery where they stay for three weeks. Next, they are put in plastic trays, each one having small holes in which one herb is put for growing. This way of growing plants is called hydroponics  and surprisingly, the earliest published work on growing terrestrial plants without soil was the 1627 book Sylva Sylvarum or A Natural History by Francis Bacon.

Byspire was started when four like-minded persons met at MESH, the Nordic Creators’ Community in Oslo in January 2017. Afterwards, they have participated in Startupmatcher where investors and entrepeneurs meet, getting to the final. They started crowdfunding in March 2017 and they reached their goal in April. In October the same year, they were listed as Top 10 startups to watch in Norway. BySpire mention the following advantages using hydroponics:

production in urban environments lead to little transport.
90% lower water consumption compared to conventional agriculture.
it requires 85% less arable land.
no pesticides.
production all year.
very little negative impact on seas and forests compared to conventional agriculture.

However, I read recently one critical article where the author Øystein Heggedal calls hydroponic salad an urban myth due to high energy requirements, in particular lighting, but also heating. Just by calculating how much energy which is required, he concludes with certainty that transporting vegetables by truck from Spain to Oslo will require much less energy than producing the same amount by means of hydroponic gardening in Oslo. I can’t contradict him on the required amount of energy in each case, but he doesn’t mention that it’s increasingly likely that there will be more droughts in southern Europe and less in northern Europe where we live. This will have a marked impact on agriculture across Europe, making it more difficult to grow edible plants because of lack of water in southern Europe and because of too much water in northern Europe.

Mr. Heggedal also refers to this article: Why Growing Vegetables in High-Rises is Wrong on So Many Levels where it is stated that “with every kilogram of food we produce under artificial lighting, we will have passed up an opportunity to harvest free sunlight, and will thereby contribute to the Earth’s warming.” Finally, he refers to an article called Comparison of Land, Water, and Energy Requirements of Lettuce Grown Using Hydroponic vs. Conventional Agricultural Methods where it is stated: In summary, hydroponic gardening of lettuce uses land and water more efficiently than conventional farming and could become a strategy for sustainably feeding the world’s growing population, if the high energy consumption can be overcome through improved efficiency and/or cost-effective renewables.

Since only the last article has been written by a group of researchers, I tend to believe most in what they are saying. For my own part, I only want to grow herbs for private use in the off-season, while Byspire wants to expand from a trial production to a full-scale production. How they are going to solve the energy problem outlined in the above-mentioned articles will be interesting to follow. Now, they pay reduced-rate rent, but they will have to pay market-rate rent when they move to a place where they can sell so much vegetables and herbs that at least one person can be paid for working full time.

Doing a web search on hydroponics, an “endless” number of sites pop up, and here is one of them. Browsing this article and the wikipedia article give me the impression that hydroponics is a huge subject, requiring experts on edible plants and chemistry, but probably many more subjects too. I really hope the people at BySpire will succeed in spite of Mr. Heggedal’s claim.

Regarding LED lamps, I have included an extract from NASA growing food in space: An amazing technological feat:

NASA tests have determined that LED lights are the optimum single source lights for plant growth on Earth as well as in space.

Why the different colors? NASA research findings include the following:

Red Light (630-660 nm) is essential for the growth of stems, as well as the expansion of leaves. This wavelength also regulates flowering, dormancy periods, and seed germination.

Blue Light (400-520 nm) needs to be carefully mixed with light in other spectra since overexposure to light in this wavelength may stunt the growth of certain plant species. Light in the blue range also affects the chlorophyll content present in the plant as well as leaf thickness.

Green Light (500-600 nm) was once thought not to be necessary for plants, but recent studies have discovered this wavelength penetrates through thick top canopies to support the leaves in the lower canopy.

Far Red Light (720-740 nm) also passes through dense upper canopies to support the growth of leaves located lower on the plants. In addition, exposure to IR light reduces the time a plant needs to flower.

Another benefit of far red light is that plants exposed to this wavelength tend to produce larger leaves than those not exposed to light in this spectrum.

Scientists have found that including white LED light mixes in arrays serve as a way to ensure plants cultivated indoors receive all the photosynthetically active radiation needed to optimize their health, growth, and yield.

Finally, for those who want an introduction to hydroponics, this web site, this web site and this web site may be of interest. Likewise, an introduction to microgreens can be found here.

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