CEA research and the future of food

Departments - Edible Insights

Dr. Genhua Niu discusses CEA production research.

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May 19, 2022

By recirculating the nutrient solution via hydroponics in a greenhouse or indoor farm, more than 90% water can be saved, compared to open field production.
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The future of food, and food sustainability, is a topic that is constantly on my mind.

As I’ve spent more time working and advising in the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) space with the Resource Innovation Institute, I find myself seeking out more quality research related to greenhouse production of food crops, as well. I don’t have to look far past my own backyard here in Dallas, Texas, to tap one of the most talented researchers in this field, Dr. Genhua Niu.

While her contributions to the amazing book Plant factory; An indoor vertical farming system for efficient quality food production focus on indoor vertical farming, her research at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas revolves around greenhouse production of both food and ornamental crops.

I thought, who better to tap for an interview about greenhouse and indoor CEA production research for the Cultivate ’22 issue?

Leslie Halleck: Before we get into your background and the nitty gritty of your research, what applications from your research (or potential research) do you feel are most useful to produce greenhouse and CEA growers?

Dr. Genhua Niu: My research areas are greenhouse crop production using hydroponics technology and indoor vertical farming. For greenhouse crop production in warm climates like Texas, we are trying to identify the suitable leafy green/herbs, species and cultivars that can be grown year-round. We also conduct research on how to increase produce quality and yield without increasing the production costs significantly. We are emphasizing temperature control and light environment manipulation. Even though we have more light compared to Michigan, supplemental lighting is still necessary in the winter season to produce high-quality leafy greens.

My near-future research will focus on growing seedlings and transplants, both organic and conventional, in controlled environments (greenhouses and indoor farms) to increase the quality of the seedlings, thus reducing shrinkage. We will use both physical (manipulating environmental conditions) and biological (applying biological inoculants or bio stimulants) approaches to reach this goal.

LH: What new or interesting developments are you seeing emerge from your recent research, and how do you plan to expand it?

GN: We have seen that the nutritional quality of leafy greens grown in greenhouses can be enhanced by short-time supplemental lighting before harvest. We can boost the content of health-promoting anthocyanins (visible — better color), antioxidants, phenolics, etc. (which are invisible). It is amazing how plants are very responsive to light treatment.

LH: What’s new and exciting on the horizon for food producers you want to make sure readers know about?

GN: With CEA technology, we can grow so many kinds of food crops locally and year-round. For example, for small urban producers, if they can afford to build a small indoor farm and a greenhouse, they can start to produce many kinds of food crops including specialty leafy greens and herbs. The CEA growing facility can fill the gap of those food crops that can’t normally be grown locally due to seasonality.

Again, another exciting area is that we are learning how to produce high-quality seedlings by improving the biological properties of the root zone. This is a new area, especially for organic seedling production, and I am excited to have started research in organic seedling production using CEA technology.

LH: What is your favorite edible crop to grow in production, and why?

GN: Specialty leafy greens and herbs. These are easy to grow in CEA and there are many varieties! We will include culturally preferred leafy greens and herbs. By culturally preferred, I mean Asian, African, Indian greens and herbs.

LH: What got you interested in the type of research you’re doing?

GN: A simple answer is my education background and research experience.

My PhD education at Chiba University, Japan, was on environmental control of micro propagated plantlets and seedlings. I also did postdoc at Michigan State University, where I did research in greenhouse ornamental plant production to control the flowering of herbaceous perennials through controlling the temperature, photoperiod and supplemental lighting in greenhouses.

Before relocating to Dallas, I was at the El Paso Center and my research was on urban landscape water conservation. I know how difficult it is to grow crops in a semi-arid climate like west Texas and the Southwest. Water quantity and quality are the critical issues. Without enough water, we can’t grow many horticultural crops because these crops need frequent irrigation. However, by recirculating the nutrient solution via hydroponics in a greenhouse or indoor farm, more than 90% water can be saved, compared to open field production. Therefore, CEA is a sustainable crop production system.

LH: To wrap up, are there any thoughts about your work or the impact you hope to make?

GN: I hope our research and extension efforts can help the CEA industry in Texas and other southern states, both greenhouse CEA and indoor farms. I also hope that the CEA industry will become affordable urban agriculture in the near future.

My takeaway?

Having myself worked at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas many eons ago, when I had a joint appointment with the Dallas Arboretum and the Center, it’s been exciting to watch them expand their CEA facilities and research. Grant money isn’t always easy to get, or available. And yet, growers need access to up-to-date, quality, in-depth research like Dr. Niu’s to help fine tune production methods and improve sustainability, not to mention control inputs and costs and boost your profits. If you’re lucky enough to have a greenhouse or CEA research facility near you, I suggest you schedule a visit as soon as possible. Better yet, get out that checkbook and help meaningly fund them.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural and business consulting, as well as product development and branding for green industry companies. She is also a horticulture instructor, industry writer and book author. lesliehalleck.com