For a country that can be driven across in under four hours, the Netherlands packs a lot of credentials. It is the world’s second-largest food exporter in the world (after the United States). It also has established itself as a leader in sustainable agriculture by pioneering new vertical farming techniques—and now by using LED lights to boost plant growth.
Spanning 215,000 square feet of leek fields on a polder island, Grow belongs in that last category. Designed by Studio Roosegaarde, it’s a light installation with a twofold mission: to make agriculture more sustainable and, in the process, inspire people to create a more emotional connection to the places that feed us. Winner of the Established Excellence category in Fast Company‘s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards, it is the first in a series of installations around the world—and a remarkable science-meets-art solution that hints at a more sustainable future for the agricultural industry.
The seeds of the installation were sown in January of this year. A constellation of red, blue, and UV LED lights were dotted across the farmland, forming a twinkling dreamscape of lights across the open field. “After three months, the leek was harvested and used for baby food,” says Daan Roosegaarde, the studio’s founder.
More than just an aesthetic marvel, though, Grow is rooted in scientific research. Roosegaarde explains that, in the wrong conditions, a plant can either grow tall and develop leaves (but remain fragile) or it can build up strength (but remain small in size). “A plant finds a balance between growth and resistance,” he says. Light can influence that balance, and the particular combination of colors will vary from crop to crop, depending on what it needs.
This is where different “light recipes,” each of them customized to fit the crop, come into play. To get the formula right, Roosegaarde worked with plant photobiology experts at Wageningen University & Research, as well as BioLumic, a New Zealand-based agtech startup that harnesses the power of UV to enhance crop yield. In this case, scientists identified that leeks are particularly sensitive to red and blue LED lights. As for the UV, “it triggers the defense system of crops,” says Roosegaarde. In other words, UV light builds up plant resistance, reducing the need for pesticides. (Most leeks mature in 100 to 120 days; it’s too early to tell if the lights helped speed up their growth.)
Pesticides are used to control various pests and disease carriers that can damage crops and reduce farm productivity. But they also have a significant impact on the environment (not to mention our health) that can lead to contaminated soil, water, and a toxic environment for insects, weeds, and animals. Roosegaarde says that the light installation has proven harmless to wildlife. And according to Jason Wargent, chief science officer at BioLumic, “Specific light recipes could enhance growth and reduce pesticide by up to 50%.”
Grow was commissioned by Rabobank as part of the Dutch bank’s ongoing artist-in-residence program. The project has been slowed by the pandemic, but it will soon be scaled across 40 countries, each with its own local crops: wheat in the U.S., rice in China, soy in Australia. Grow will also be featured in this year’s Dubai World Expo, though the exact crop and location haven’t yet been revealed. In each iteration, the crop will have its own light recipe.
Studio Roosegaarde has long had an affinity for light. Earlier this year, it launched Urban Sun, a light fixture that uses far-UVC light to sanitize environments under its radius. “Using the power of light to make environments better for people and enhance the wellbeing of crops,” Roosegaarde says, “that’s the aim of these projects.”
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