Vertical agriculture meets personalized nutrition for the “vegetable garden” of the future
The EIT Food-backed custom Nutrition through kitchen Gardens (PERNUG) project aims to develop hydroponic systems to grow a range of food plants in a domestic setting.
EIT Food is supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), which is part of the European Union. The project brings together the skills and expertise of Studio Kapp, which has developed food solutions for home gardens and the Internet of Things, the Quadram Institute, a food and health research center, and the KU Leuven, which offers experience in consumer studies, co-creating solutions and developing interfaces and consumer applications.
The ambition is to create a commercial product within two years.
âPERNUG will deliver a commercial product by 2023, 2022 being a pilot year. The pilot will test solutions with key players across the food supply chain and aims to make sustainable hydroponic products widely accessible and affordable â,Lauri Kapp, founder of Studio Kapp, told FoodNavigator.
âGrowing consumer awareness of the inherent links between food, health and the environment is driving demand for more personalized and sustainable food choices. Yet the values, direction and methods of the current food system are not aligned to help consumers achieve their individual health goals or reduce their environmental footprint â,Kapp observed.
Pilot studies are already setting up prototypes of vegetable gardens in households. Consumer feedback will be used to design the final product.
“Next year, we will conduct a proof-of-concept study to test the effectiveness of the system, ie can we improve the nutritional status of users of the system.”Kapp added.
Produce for personalized nutrition
The project will connect consumers to the latest scientifically validated data on nutrition and health, allowing them to choose from a range of different crops and varieties related to their own personalized nutritional needs.
Consumer health information will be collected through an app that will also provide recipe suggestions.
“We are currently developing a consumer interface (an application) that allows users to enter their data and receive recipe recommendations”Dr Paul Kroon of the Quadram Institute told this publication.
âThe app will use user-entered data combined with data on food composition, bioavailability and how to maximize nutrients of interest to provide recipe recommendations, with the vegetable patch providing a fresh and convenient source of food. biofortified plants with the nutrients of choice. There will also be the option to include other data entered by the user, such as personal tastes or proximity preferences, for example “if you like this recipe, here is another one you might like”.
The team will develop recipes that use produce grown in the vegetable garden to provide the RDA of various nutrients. PERNUG believes it will provide a âconsumer-centric solutionâ to the âwidespread and growing problemâ of micronutrient deficiency.
Researchers are initially focusing on iron and vitamin B12.
In almost all EU countries, more than half of women of childbearing age do not consume the recommended intake of iron, suggest studies. Meanwhile, vitamin B12 is a micronutrient that is typically provided in the diet through meat, with plants unable to make it. The growing popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets is expected to increase the number of people deficient in vitamin B12, the researchers noted.
âOur current focus in trials is on two micronutrients (iron and vitamin B12) where we know a significant number of people are at risk of being deficient based on demographics. In the future, we may extend this, including, for example, providing recommendations based on individual nutritional needs defined by home test kits â,Dr Kroon explained.
By testing and selecting different varieties of edible plants and experimenting with how adding nutrients to the growing medium can biofortify crops, the finished system will offer a choice of crops that contain high levels of nutrients.
âWe are confident that we can achieve significant increases in iron and vitamin B12 intakes if consumers use the system in the way it was designed. Plants do not produce B12 and therefore B12 biofortified plants grown in these units will be unique. Our R&D to date suggests that we can achieve the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) for vitamin B12 intake in home gardens.
“For iron, the key will be to use a combination of hydroponics with biofortification and to provide recipes that use plant foods rich in iron and especially bioavailable iron (i.e. a relatively high fraction of ingested iron is absorbed and contributes to body iron stores). The next step of the project is to test the system through a pilot study where participants will use the system for a period of time and we will assess their nutritional status before and after the have used.
Sustainable nutrition thanks to vertical farms
Project contributors describe vertical farming as “one of the solutions to make agriculture more sustainable”, while providing products year round to meet consumer demand.
The crops are grown without soil in a controlled and optimized environment, without the use of pesticides. They efficiently reuse resources, reducing waste, EIT Food noted. Vertical farms have been shown to use 90% less water and provide much higher yields per square meter of land.
A question often raised about the environmental credentials of vertical farms concerns their energy consumption, as they rely on LED lighting.
Dr Kroon said that although a life cycle assessment has not been performed on the PERNUG system, it is likely that the power consumption will be similar to that of other kitchen appliances. âThe vegetable garden uses a standard household electricity supply. Electricity consumption is likely to be similar to that of other household appliances. We have not done a full life cycle analysis, but the transition from electricity production to renewable energies is well aligned with the commercialization of these vegetable gardens â,he told us.
Currently around 20% of the energy used in the EU comes from renewable sources and targets have been put in place to increase it further.
Integrating production into the domestic setting offers a number of other ecological gains, the researchers argued. It eliminates the supply chain needed to bring fresh produce home, reducing the impact of transportation and combating food waste during transportation.
Reducing feed miles also maximizes nutrient levels in produce, addressing the issue of post-harvest nutrient loss.
âHome gardens have a range of consumer and environmental benefits over those obtained through conventional supply chains. But they also provide a great opportunity to provide personalized nutrition, and in the PERNUG project we are developing home gardens that grow more nutrient-dense plants and allow users to choose from delicious and carefully crafted recipes that provide the types and the amounts of nutrients such as minerals and vitamins they need â,Dr Kroon concluded.
In addition to home cooking, the PERNUG vegetable garden can be installed in workplaces, schools and other institutions, the researchers noted.