Episode 4: Break it down, in space and on Earth

In this episode, Vermeulen and Foodlog's Bianca van der Ha wrap up a 4 part series by discussing some key philosophies and principles from space that can be applied here on Earth.

Learning from space
We start with a circular thinking design, which is a key philosophy in designing systems in space. Circular thinking entails trying to “minimise waste and maximise reuse,” since it is too expensive and impractical to keep shipping supplies to space. So, for example, up to 90% of the water at the International Space Station is recycled and reused. This could be applied to the future of horticulture with creations such as the circular greenhouse.

Furthermore, Vermeulen thinks that circularity and localisation need to go hand in hand here on Earth. “It’s not just the idea of circularity, but also of localising certain processes. There’s no point in trying to be circular when your processes are happening on the other side of the world. Because then you have to transport everything there and process it and bring it all back, so where is the advantage here for the environment?”

Minimise waste and maximise reuse
Vermeulen also sees possible lessons to learn with waste recycling, with the example of MELiSSA, a closed loop artificial ecosystem that is being developed by ESA. In it, “all human waste is being recycled and broken down into components and gradually being transformed into food for plants.” Thus, horticulture here on Earth could also aim to build up systems that break down organic waste (think parts of food that we grow but don’t eat, e.g. corn husks and stocks) that are more circular, local, and sustainable instead of relying on traditional methods, such as burning. Vermeulen circles back to this later in the interview with the example of cities. “Organic waste in cities is a huge resource that is not used at all - there’s huge potential there. You’re not going to ship all of the organic waste out of the city, so you might as well build installations in the city that produce valuable biomolecules or crops out of it.”

One of the biggest problems in space is space
Sensing and control techniques, as well as maximal utilisation of literal space are other areas in which the horticultural can learn from outer space. “Because of the risks of living in something like a space station, there is a lot of very advanced sensing and controling of climate and water.” These techniques, if used in greenhouses, could be revolutionary. Even more domains that are well developed in space, such as automation, robotics, and AI can also be used in conjunction. Additionally, techniques to maximise yield in a limited physical space can also be used in these greenhouses or urban farming. As Vermeulen puts it, “one of the biggest problems in space is space. Space is very expensive.”

Two-way learning
This trans-disciplinary learning is not just a one way street, however; space has many lessons to learn from horticulture as well. For Vermeulen, one of the biggest ones is in preparation for the future, when humans switch to long term settlement of space. “We need to shift to large scale food production. We need to start growing calories. We need to grow much greater amounts of food, and this is where we can learn from the horticulture sector. They know how to grow food consistently over long periods of time in large quantities. And that’s what we need when we bring people to deep space.”

Another area of horticultural technology that can be transferred and adapted for space is with lighting. Vermeulen suggests that this is incredibly valuable knowledge, since scientists are doing a lot of research with LED lighting for plants in space. To be able to directly transfer that knowledge to the domain of space and build upon that could potentially be much less redundant and much more effective.

It's two worlds that don't communicate
Bridging the gap
When asked why much space technology isn’t always implemented to its full potential on earth. Vermeulen suggests it may be because there isn’t as much need, economic incentive, or awareness. Sending supplies to space is incredibly costly, and once you’re in space, your lifeline is incredibly thin. Thus, there is great awareness about resources and how valuable they are. “Here on earth, we are still living with the idea that many resources are infinite, and that doesn’t really stimulate this more circular thinking.”

The worlds of space and horticulture do not communicate enough, which means there is much potential collaboration and knowledge lost. Vermeulen stresses a need for trans-disciplinary research and dialogue. “Bring together different perspectives and different types of expertise to come up with really new and fresh solutions for the future.”

Cutting your losses
While explaining inevitable losses in the process, Vermeulen points out that even though they can’t be taken away all together, there are many ways to minimise them. He gives the example of fertilisers getting leached and diluted in soils on Earth, which is avoided with hydroponics. “With hydroponics, we don’t use any soil in which things can disappear. What you really keep track of is the nutrient content of the water, and you add nutrients when needed. But you don’t add them when the nutrient concentration is optimal. So there is much better control and much less waste of fertiliser.”

The challenge of circularity is the losses
Once again, Vermeulen stresses that here on Earth, we must make a shift in thinking and technology to look at the entire plant as a resource, not just the part we eat. “This whole idea of looking at everything that we consume as part of a molecular cycle is a very interesting perspective. You become more conscious of how everything is composed and how it can be decomposed and where every one of those molecules goes.”Making this shift in thinking as a sector will be revolutionary. “Every molecule counts. Every component of the system, even of your crop, plant, even of your food. Every component becomes a potential valuable molecule for some process.”

Finding resources in space
Vermeulen believes that in the future (once the technology exists, of course) finding resources and energy from space itself won’t be a problem, as long as we get creative. There are many resources in asteroids, for example. Asteroids contain “all kinds of materials, ranging from water ice to metals to organic materials. Mining these asteroids and using these materials to continue developing structures in space will be a part of our future.” Along similar lines, there is huge potential for harnessing solar energy in a much greater capacity than we do here on Earth, which can lead to other incredible energy sources, such as fusion.

Wrapping up, Vermeulen enthusiastically suggests that there is still much discussion to be had and knowledge to be shared between the horticultural and space domains. Coming up with more circular and autonomous systems here on Earth, not just in farming but also in food production, requires lots more room for improvement and creativity. “Doing this within the imagination of space exploration gives people more imagination and increased creativity.”

After exploring this series, what else do you think lies in the future of space-inspired horticulture? How about of horticulture-inspired space?