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Research on cross-overs: greenhouses, aquaculture & algae cultivation

Fish farming and vegetable farming are easy to combine: together they can form a nice agri-food chain. A Mexican greenhouse horticulture company wants to explore the options for such a circular system, and preferably also integrate with algae cultivation.

The Greenhouse Horticulture and Flower Bulbs Business Unit of Wageningen University & Research, together with colleagues from Food & Biobased Research and Livestock Research, investigated the technical feasibility of this new set-up of the company.

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United Farms – Finka in Queretaro, Mexico is a larger, innovative nursery with several locations where mainly tomatoes and cucumbers are grown in greenhouses. The company started a few years ago, together with WUR, the Algaelinkages research   in which microalgae were cultivated on the basis of the drain water from the greenhouses. Those algae could be used again as healthy chicken feed to produce omega-3 enriched eggs. The project not only focused on healthy and sustainable food, but also on the efficient use of water.

Is the combination of vegetable cultivation – fish cultivation – algae cultivation technically feasible?

The Mexican company wants to use their water even more efficiently, namely by also using the drain water from the greenhouses for fish farming (or aquaponics ). WUR researchers from Plant Research, Food & Biobased Research and Livestock Research joined forces and, based on a desktop study, investigated whether the combination of vegetable farming – fish farming – algae farming is technically feasible at United Farms – Finka.


The research shows that the combination is technically feasible, but that the fish farming must be placed before the greenhouse in the chain, instead of after it. This has to do with the required water quality for fish and the efficient reuse of nutrients from fish farming for the crop in the greenhouse. The algae could be grown on the drain water from the greenhouse as well as water from the fish culture. A possible follow-up study can delve deeper into the economic feasibility and possible business cases of the chain.

The research was carried out as part of Opportunities for Tomorrow , funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality.



Purple tomatoes thanks to a red beet pigment

Some researchers of the Leibniz Institute for Plant Biochemistry (IPB) in Halle, Germany, have recently created purple tomatoes by using genetic engineering methods. To do this, they inserted the genes responsible for betanin biosynthesis in the plant and activated them in the ripening fruit. Betanin is not normally produced by tomatoes, but extracted from red beet and used as natural food coloring. This type of genetic engineering methods help produce substances in specifically developed plant production systems. It will definitely play an important role in the future, especially to produce medication. Manufacturing vaccines and antibodies with plants already is a very active field of research.

Thus, the main objective of this study was not to create a new tomato variety for consumption, but rather to refine the methods of genetic engineering, which are much easier to analyze by producing a clearly visible pigment. Plants are very efficient but also very complicated production systems. They have a large number of regulatory mechanisms that can sometimes slow down the entire biosynthesis process of the substance to produce. “These complex feedback mechanisms are still poorly understood,” explains Sylvestre Marillonnet, lead researcher of the study. “A lot of research is still needed in this regard.”

Even for the betanin, it took a lot of planning and adjustments for the plants to achieve the desired synthesis yield. The Halle researchers inserted the three genes needed for betanin biosynthesis into the tomato plants, and they also inserted several genetic switches to activate the inserted genes only in the fruit and at exactly the same time during ripening. Still, the betanin production in the fruit was meager at first. A fourth gene had to be inserted, ensuring the provision of an important precursor substance, in order to maintain a higher biosynthesis level of the pigments. This is how the deep purple tomatoes were born, containing even more betanin than red beets.

The Halle study provided new important information on genetic engineering methods. “But these tomatoes are also perfectly safe for consumption and even very healthy.” Indeed, betanin, like many pigments, has a strong antioxidant effect. The purple fruits could also be a source of betanin, a food coloring agent. The first attempts at using betanin from tomatoes to color yoghurts and lemonades gave promising results.

Besides genetic engineering – the production of substances in plants – IPB conducts extensive research on all conventional methods of production of active ingredients from plants. This includes the traditional organic synthesis and the development of biotechnological methods to produce the desired products thanks to bacteria or yeast. The relatively immature and promising method of biocatalysis is also studied at the institute. This method consists of using genetic engineering to modify the genes of the biosynthesis enzymes of the plants in order to create new enzymes with the desired properties. These new enzymes are then used to develop new processes for the synthesis of the desired products in test tubes. The method chosen depends on the structural properties of the substance to be produced. Some plant compounds, like morphine and other opiates, have such a complex structure that it is even more economic to extract them directly from the plant.

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Delphy: trial with autonomous vegetable cultivation

The trial, conducted by Delphy, is exceeding expectations

A trial with autonomous vegetable cultivation is currently underway in Japan. “The trial, conducted by Delphy, is exceeding expectations,” Aad van den Berg, managing director at the knowledge company, told Innovation Quarter. 

The trial used software that was developed together with software developers from outside the sector. In this way they want to benefit from knowledge of other sectors. 

The greenhouse is fully controlled by software. “We are currently working on fine-tuning the settings of, for example, the CO2, the humidification and the airing. In the short term, we hope to start pilots in the Netherlands, in close collaboration with a number of growers.”


Aad does not know whether the software as it is currently running in Japan will soon be on the market here. “First, we want to be fully convinced of how it works. The software runs well in Japan, but that may not be good enough for Dutch growers. And the acceptance among Dutch growers is more cautious than that of growers abroad. This is due to the high degree of knowledge in the Netherlands. We are also very aware that the software has a direct effect on the companies of the growers who work with it. You could say: we play with their money. You have to do that very seriously.” 

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Delphy is working on digitization in a total of four crops in Innovation Quarter’s AgriTech innovation programme. Until June 21, 2021, companies in South Holland can request an innovation voucher up to a maximum of 100,000 euros to validate a new technology.

In the case of Delphy, organic cultivation is currently in the following four crops: tomato, cucumber, chrysanthemum and strawberry.

The AgriTech innovation program aims to remove barriers to sharing green knowledge and combining it with technological innovations. Most cultivation knowledge (‘green knowledge’) resides in the minds of growers and also with advisers. Digitizing this knowledge is an important step towards autonomous cultivation. Knowledge company Delphy is currently doing this for four crops: tomato, cucumber, chrysanthemum and strawberry. A first trial with autonomous cultivation is exceeding expectations. Aad van den Berg, managing director at Delphy: “We want to make green knowledge more independent of people.

Source: Innovation Quarter

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Researchers make greenhouse energy breakthrough

A team of researchers at North Carolina State University, working with organic photovoltaic cell (OPV) company NextGen Nano, has demonstrated how adding semi-transparent organic solar cells (OSCs) to greenhouses allows growers to generate electricity and simultaneously cultivate lettuce, reducing greenhouse energy demands. The results will lay the groundwork for power generation in sustainable greenhouse cultivation.

The research, published in Cell Reports Physical Science, found that red lettuce can be grown in greenhouses with OSCs that filter out the wavelengths of light used to generate solar power. This demonstrates the feasibility of using transparent solar panels in greenhouses to fulfil their high electricity demands, while not reducing the crop yield.

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Over a 30-day period, four lettuce groups were grown under different light colour compositions using OSC filters. This included a control group exposed to a full spectrum of white light. No significant difference in fresh-weight or chlorophyll content between the control group and the experimental groups was found, suggesting that removing the selective portions of light spectrum needed to generate electricity did not affect the growth of the crop. The harvested wavelengths could then be used to power the energy-intensive lighting, thermal management and irrigation systems needed for greenhouse cultivation.

“Greenhouses are used to grow plants because they drastically increase yield in non-native climates, while lowering water consumption and pesticide use compared to conventional farming,” explained Doctor Carr Ho, research scientist at NextGen Nano. “But greenhouse glazing has poor thermal insulation, so heating and ventilation systems need to be installed to help maintain optimal conditions. Along with supplemental lighting, this leads to large, unsustainable energy consumptions.

“With this research, scientists at NCSU have found a way for greenhouse cultivation without the large energy demands traditionally associated with it,” continued Ho. “By using OSCs with the right optical coatings and design features, growers can manage the light transmission, power generation and thermal loads in a greenhouse for high-productivity at low-energy usages.

The use of DBR coatings not only provides an opportunity to increase power generation but it also can be used to reduce overheating in the greenhouse. We show that for a greenhouse in Sacramento, California, the number of hours that the greenhouse overheats can be reduced from 280 to 82 h when using OSCs with a DBR tuned to reflect NIR light. While this does not have a large impact on energy demand, it is expected to improve crop production.

Lastly, using OSC electrodes that can also function as low-ε coatings was shown to significantly reduce the heating load of the greenhouse. Combining the minimal impact observed on plant productivity, along with power generation and improved thermal management with the use of ST-OSC, suggest that integrating OSCs with greenhouses is a promising strategy to achieve environmentally sustainable high-intensity greenhouse-based agriculture.

“Further research is needed to develop OSCs capable of increasing production yield in greenhouses. But the research supported by NextGen Nano certainly suggests that integrating OSCs into greenhouse cultivation is a promising strategy to achieve sustainable, high-intensity greenhouse-based agriculture.”

In addition to the support for this paper, NextGen Nano has developed a patented OPV device that can be used in the next generation of solar power. This technology is made from flexible, robust, Earth-friendly biopolymers with the aim to replace the traditional brittle solar cells made from toxin-heavy metals, like lead perovskites.

The lighting demands in the greenhouse will depend on geographic location and crop. While the lettuce is shown to grow well under the ST-OSCs, it is known to be a shade-tolerant crop.7 For plants that have greater lighting demands, alternative ST-OSC device designs and active layers may be needed. The greenhouse location will also dictate the daily solar radiation entering the greenhouse as well as the heating and cooling needs of the space. In this section, we consider ST-OSC design considerations that affect crop production, electricity generation, and the thermal load of the facility.

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The full research paper is accessible on the Cell Reports website. For more information on NextGen Nano’s other product developments, visit the company website


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