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Hi-tech garden for growing veg on Moon and at Poles

Hi-tech garden for growing veg on Moon and at Poles
© Miami Scientific Italian Community (MIAMSIC)


V-GELM is a hi-tech vegetable garden designed by the ENEA research team to grow micro-greens on the Moon and in extreme environments such as at the North and South Poles. It is set up inside a special igloo greenhouse designed to withstand very low temperatures as well as space missions.

V-GELM (Virtual Greenhouse Experimental Lunar Module) is an experimental project that ran from 10th to 19th July in the Casaccia Research Centre with the aim of developing a lunar cultivation module combining innovative hydroponic cultivation techniques with virtual experiments to support astronauts’ lives in future long-term missions. The project was carried out by a team of ENEA researchers and students from the Interdepartmental Centre for Building Restoration Environment (CITERA) and the Sapienza University of Rome and Tuscia and was live streamed. 

The innovative ENEA vegetable garden contains hydroponic cultivation of two particular varieties of radish, Daikon and Rioja, inside a tent called EGG due to its shape. The module was developed by ENEA as part of the Hortspace project, funded by the Space Agency Italiana (ASI). It consists of a 1 m3 closed-loop multilevel hydroponic cultivation system with LED lighting where different species of micro-green vegetables are grown, specially selected to reach the ideal growth stage for consumption within 10-15 days.

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Coalition files lawsuit to prevent soilless agriculture from receiving organic certification

Coalition files lawsuit to prevent soilless agriculture from receiving organic certification © Réussir Fruits et Légumes

© Réussir Fruits et Légumes


The US Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit with a coalition of organic farms and stakeholders challenging the US Department of Agriculture’s decision to allow hydroponic operations to be certified organic. According to Planetwatch, the lawsuit contends that hydroponic operations violate organic standards because they fail to build healthy soils and asks the court to stop the USDA from allowing hydroponically-produced crops to be certified. The US is one of the few countries that will allow hydroponics to be certified organic. Mexico, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and 24 European countries all ban hydroponic vegetable production to be labelled organic. 

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the body assigned by Congress to advise the USDA, has repeatedly asked the USDA to ban organic certification of hydroponics. The NOSB recommended in 2010 that hydroponics be prohibited from organic certification. The USDA continues to ignore that recommendation. In January 2019, the Center for Food Safety filed a legal petition asking the USDA to ban hydroponics from organic certification. The USDA denied the request that same year.

The lawsuit claims that denying the petition violated the Administrative Procedure Act and the Organic Foods Production Act, which requires farmers to build soil fertility to obtain organic certification. Hydroponic crops are grown without soil using water-based nutrient solutions. Synthetic salts are the most common nutrients used in hydroponics, and most of them are not allowed in products certified organic.

“Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “Organic farmers and consumers believe that the Organic label means not just growing food in soil, but improving the fertility of that soil. USDA’s loophole for corporate hydroponics to be sold under the Organic label guts the very essence of Organic.”

The basis of organic agriculture is to feed the soil, not the plant. Dave Chapman of Long Wind Farm told Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont: “Organic farming is based on enhancing and cultivating the wonderful balance of the biological systems in the soil. It isn’t just about replacing chemical fertilizers with natural fertilizers.”

One of the objections to hydroponics is that it relies heavily on fertilisers. Oregon Tilth Certified Organic states that hydroponics relies on large volumes of soluble fertilisers with little nutrient cycling. Commercial hydroponic growers will rarely reveal the fertilisers they use, according to the Texas Organic Research Center. Another objection is that hydroponics use chemicals, which organic producers are prohibited from using.

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Agricultural Robots and AI: A Question of When rather than If

Agricultural Robots and AI: A Question of When rather than If


Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will drive a deep and transformative change in the agricultural world during the coming decades. Seeing, localising, and taking plant-specific intelligent action are no longer the exclusive realm of humans. Machines have demonstrated the technical viability and the emphasis has long shifted to the finer details of ROI, reliability, business model, etc. As such, a new class of activities in agriculture are prone to automation, just as advances in power and motion technologies mechanized many agricultural tasks, or just as advances in seed and agrochemical technology removed the human from many activities. 

In an article published by market research firm IDTechEx, which has studied the technologies, applications, products, and players in agricultural robotics and AI for the past five years, the firm argues that the upcoming changes are already a question of when and not if. The article is based on the IDTechEx report “Agricultural Robots, Drones, and AI: 2020-2040: Technologies, Markets, and Players”, which covers the latest developments and reflects our latest insights, analysis, and market projections.  

The transformation will not be overnight, but nonetheless, robotics and AI are an inevitability in the evolution of agricultural tools and practises. The scale of the potential is demonstrated in the chart below, which shows the forecasted long-term growth in annual unit sales (vs accumulated fleet size) of various autonomous and/or robotic solutions.

Agricultural Robots: A Cost-Effective Precision Revolution?

Machine vision technology is often a core competency of these robots, enabling the robots to see, identify, localise, and to take some intelligent site-specific action on individual plants. The machine vision increasingly uses deep learning algorithms often trained on expert-annotated image datasets, allowing the technology to far exceed the performance of conventional algorithms and to match or even exceed even that of expert agronomists. Crucially, this approach enables a long-term technology roadmap, which can be extended to recognise all types of crops and to analyse their associated conditions, e.g., water-stress, disease, etc.

Many versions of this emerging robotic class are autonomous.  The autonomy challenge is much simpler than a car. The environment is well controlled and predictable, and the speed of travel is low. The legislation is today a hindrance, including in places such as California, but will become more accommodative relatively soon.

The rise of autonomous robots, provided they require little remote supervision, can alter the economics of machine design, enabling the rise of smaller and slower machines. Indeed, this elimination of the driver overhead per vehicle is the basis of the swarm concept. There is clearly a large productivity gap today between current large and high-power vehicles and those composed of fleets of slow small robots. This productivity gap however can narrow as the latter has substantial room for improvement.

The first major target market is in weeding. The ROI benefits here are driven by labour savings, chemical savings, boosted yields, and less land compaction. Precision action (spraying, mechanical, or electrical) reduces consumption of agrochemicals by 90% compared to untargeted application.  It also improves yield (e.g., by 5-10%) because collateral damage of the crops by untargeted chemical application can be minimized. This technology can further enable farmers to tackle herbicide-resistant weeds, which are a growing problem, especially in some hotspots. Finally, the robots leave behind no unusable compacted soil.

These robots are evolving. Many robots have already grown in size and capability, offering faster speeds, higher frame-per-seconds, more ruggedised designs, higher on-board energy for longer operation time and a heavier load, and so on. This evolution will inevitably continue, just as it did with all other agricultural tools and vehicles. We are still at the beginning. The deployed fleet sizes worldwide are small, but this is about to change (see the chart above).


 TAGS: robots, AI, agriculture, IDTechex, research, technology

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Accusations of misuse of EU funds for “organic” farming in Croatia

Croatia's Chamber of Agriculture

Croatia’s Chamber of Agriculture has claimed that the country’s farmers owe huge amounts to the EU due to the misuse of funding set aside for organic agriculture. Total Croatia News reports that the Agricultural Ministry later denied all allegations, while admitting some “irregularities” existed in EU-back funding for organic farming which were quickly weeded out.

The accusations first surfaced when Chamber of Agriculture Vice President, Antun Vrankić, bemoaned the poor state of eastern Croatia’s farming sector. An EU inspection found that only 2% of the incentives paid for organic farming was justified, with 98% being false, amounting to €400 million, which the EU is now demanding be returned. Farmers are being asked to share the cost equally as an act of solidarity.

In response, Agriculture Minister, Marija Vucković, called the accusations “untested and completely inaccurate” in a lengthy statement pushing back against Vrankić’s claims. 

Vrakić is concerned about Croatia’s ability to feed itself at this critical time, with self-sufficiency falling below 40%.

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Spanish government calls on EU to defend agricultural sector

Spanish government calls on EU to defend agricultural sector


The Spanish government has confirmed its commitment to defending its farmers and called on the EU to do likewise. The country’s Minister of Agriculture Luis Planas met virtually with the professional organisations Upa, Coag and Asaja to discuss a plan to protect the country’s vital agricultural sector. The move follows a complaint by the provincial secretary of Coag, Andrés Gongora, regarding the sale of Senegal watermelons in supermarkets where local fruits are also available.

Coag secretary general Miguel Blanco said that Planas promised to facilitate seasonal work to complete agricultural campaigns and requesting market measures from the European Commission to support the agricultural sectors affected by the Coronavirus. In addition, the minister will call for the reactivation of an observatory to combat price speculation and a strengthened budget for the CAP that supports the essential and strategic agricultural sector.

The associations define the initiatives taken thus far by the EU’s agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski to extend the deadline for requests for CAP assistance as “totally insufficient”.


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Economic crisis pushes New Zealanders into the fields

Economic crisis pushes New Zealanders into the fields


The annual problem faced by New Zealand’s horticulture industry regarding the lack of seasonal labour has actually been eased in recent weeks. The rising unemployment prompted by the coronavirus pandemic is leading to locals looking for employment in agriculture, one of the few essential services allowed to operate in the current lockdown conditions across the country. This comes at a critical point as the harvests of apple, and pear and kiwifruit hit their peaks.

New Zealand’s agriculture minister, Damien O’Connor, underlined the importance of the country’s agricultural sector at a time like this, underlining  that it is “becoming a lifeline for a number of redeployed workers from industries such as tourism, forestry and hospitality.”

According to data from New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers, many firms now have a workforce of up to 90% New Zealanders, compared to the industry average of around 50% last season.


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European countries seek solutions to guarantee fresh produce supplies

In France, to overcome the shortage of workers in fiels, the government has created a website for people to apply to jobs without losing their rights to go back to their jobs after the quarantine. /// ©
In France, to overcome the shortage of workers in fields, the government has created a website for people to apply for jobs without losing their right to go back to their jobs after the quarantine. /// ©


Governments of the EU are taking steps to prevent shortages of fresh fruits and vegetables. Measure suggested so far include setting up ‘green lanes’ to allow fresh produce to move quickly across EU borders, recruiting a ‘shadow army’ of harvesters, and loosening travel rules for migrant workers, according to Reuters. For now supplies are not being interrupted, but pressure is building in source countries in Africa and within Europe.

Spanish operators are unable to hire the necessary seasonal workers from Morocco to help with the strawberry harvest in Huelva. In the production areas, absentee rates are reported to be as high as 50% in recent days, according to agricultural worker union representative Monica Vega. The same issue is affecting the asparagus harvest, which is hindered by the need to overcome major challenges such as moving workers from accommodation to farms while maintaining social distancing. Other countries, such as Switzerland and Germany, are experiencing similar difficulties with recruiting workers from abroad

Freshfel’s general delegate, Philippe Binard, said that in response to these supply problems, supermarkets may switch towards selling produce that is less labour-intensive and can be more easily mechanised in the supply chain.

In Germany, whose agri-food sector hires 286,000 seasonal workers every year, the country’s agricultural  minister is looking into whether Lufthansa can fly in the required personnel if they can prove they are not infected. There has also been mention of temporarily extending the time limit for seasonal workers beyond the current 70 days.

In France, which expects a shortfall of around 200,000 workers during the harvest period, the Agriculture Minister, Didier Guillaume, issued a rallying cry appealing to workers who have recently lost jobs due to the pandemic to help with the harvest and form a ‘shadow army’.

Meanwhile, in Kenya, a major supplier of green beans has told half of its workers to stay home on mandatory leave because of the industry’s inability to ship orders, while demand surges in Europe. Okisegere Ojepat, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium of Kenya, which groups over 200 growers and exporters, said, “[European] stocks are being depleted by the day.” Meanwhile, another major supplier, South Africa, is just starting a 21-day lockdown. “We were in reasonably good shape until earlier this week but now things are becoming very difficult. More and more flights are being grounded, so I expect there are going to be big disruptions,” said Hans Muylaert-Gelein, managing director at Fruits Unlimited, a South Africa-based exporter of fresh produce to the UK. 

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Freshfel demands concrete solutions

Freshfel demands concrete solutions, © Réussir Fruits et Légumes

© Réussir Fruits et Légumes


Association calls on agri-ministers to firm-up EU-wide solutions on free movement of goods and critical workers. As the effects of the Covid-19 outbreak continue to unfold across Europe, Freshfel Europe has said that it welcomed the discussions of yesterday’s Informal Agriculture and Fisheries Council on free movement of goods and critical workers.

The fresh produce association is now urging EU capitals to find EU-wide solutions to ensure the movement of goods and critical agricultural workers in the single market. According to Freshfel, only harmonised coordination across member states on these areas will enable the fresh fruit and vegetable sector to continue supplying high quality, safe and healthy produce to European consumers.

“Freshfel Europe strongly supports the consensus among member state ministries on the need to guarantee the integrity of the single market, which is a crucial issue for the fresh fruit and vegetables sector,” the association stated. “To translate this agreement into practice it is essential that EU capitals implement the European Commission practical guidance on the EU green lanes with a matter of urgency to ensure that highly perishable fresh produce crosses internal EU borders in a maximum timeframe of 15 minutes.”“Freshfel Europe would also like to highlight the discussion during the Informal Council meeting on the need for free movement of seasonal workers within the EU and also from neighbouring countries,” Freshfel continued. “This is a critical matter for the fresh fruit and vegetable sector’s immediate future.”

Member States were urged to take immediate action to secure the availability of professional workers for the upcoming harvests, with Freshfel highlighting the “urgent need” for workers for many vegetable products as well as for other highly demanded products such as asparagus and strawberries.

The fruit season is also beginning, which requires a complete seasonal workforce – an urgent matter to resolve as for some products the season is advanced by a number of weeks due to weather conditions over the past months.“Freshfel Europe urges EU capitals to continue to welcome seasonal workers from other EU and neighbouring countries on a formal manner. This critical staff is necessary to ensure food security in Europe during the Covid-19 outbreak. These measures should be accompanied by strong medical supervision of incoming workers, which should be harmonised across Europe. Furthermore, support from member state governments should be envisaged to secure safe transport, work and accommodation of these workers.”

The work done by the EC to guarantee the supply of fresh produce to EU citizens was praised by the association, which requested that any new measures, including on seasonal workers, were implemented with a pan-European approach that prevents distortion of competition between growers.

Freshfel also warned member states that the imposition of unilateral bans on the entry of professional seasonal workers from one or several member states to another would “deeply undermine” the ability of growers to harvest fresh produce, leading to significant food waste along the supply chain and putting supply to European supermarket shelves at risk.

“Moreover, the replacement of seasonal workers by volunteer staff should be cautiously considered and implemented,” Freshfel added. “Pickers should remain physically capable, trained, fully committed and incentivised to work throughout the season and not merely on a ‘one off’ basis. If this is not ensured huge uncertainty will be created around the capacity of the sector to continuously and uniformly supply fresh produce throughout the season.”

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Sival international exhibition for plant production techniques connects productions of tomorrow

Sival international exhibition for plant production techniques connects productions of tomorrow

The Sival trade fair was held in Angers, France on 14-16 January and brought together equipment manufacturers and suppliers of winegrowers, market gardeners and arboriculturalists. It provided an excellent barometer to measure the dynamism of these specialised productions.

A host of innovations were showcased in varietal selection, crop protection and robotics. The Sival d’Or Award was presented to a new variety of pear, the CH201, which can be found in stores under the name ‘Fred’. In addition to its taste qualities, this Swiss pear has six months shelf life and is tolerant to fire blight.

Also presented was a biofungicide technique deriving from a very common yeast strain in the Saccharomyces family which can hinder the spread of pathogens. Researchers speak of spatial and nutritional competition. The good yeasts sprayed on a plant create a shield by occupying the ecological niche of botrytis, which destroys grapes, and moniliosis, which causes fruit to rot.

In terms of the robotics and machinery on display, Trektor is the first hybrid agricultural robot capable of weeding a vine including between vines, for eight hours without breaking the crust. This will allow farmers to raise productivity and cut costs at times when hiring agricultural staff has become a challenge.


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Agreement opens opportunities for US fruit in Japan

The US-Japan Trade Agreement (USJTA) came into force on January 1, 2020. Once USJTA is fully implemented, up to 90% of all US food and agricultural products imported into Japan will be duty free or receive preferential tariff access. Japan is a key trading partner for the US. In 2018, the US exported $318 million of fresh fruit to Japan, making Japan the 4th largest overseas market for US fresh fruit. The US was the source of one third of Japan’s fresh fruit imports and the leading supplier of fresh oranges, lemons, grapes and cherries. Japan will apply a seasonal US-specific safeguard for oranges starting at 26,435 tons. The safeguard only applies to products imported between December 1 and March 31. If the safeguard volume is exceeded, tariffs on US orange exports will increase for the remainder of that period. The safeguard tariff is 28% in Years 1-3 and 20% in Years 4-6.  The safeguard will be eliminated in Year 7 (2025).