Many of the oils, butters and different botanicals used in cosmetic products come from highly diverse tropical regions. It is estimated that tropical rainforests contain more than half of the Earth’s terrestrial plant and animal species, yet cover less than 10% of the land area. Protecting pristine natural areas should be a primary concern in the tropics and everywhere. This inspired our work with novel African oil seed trees with excellent lipid profiles grown and harvested in sustainable ways (Shukla & Nielsen, 2014) (http://www.qualitree.neri.dk/). Natural areas all over the world are getting reduced to make room for agriculture; current estimates put the global agricultural land-use at 51 million km2, roughly 50% of all habitable land.
Land destruction and degradation devastate people and the planet. Some suggest we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction; it is estimated that about 25% of all mammals, 13% of all bird species may vanish (Tilman et al., 2017). Furthermore, about 1,000 species go extinct every week, a rate that is at least a hundred times higher than naturally occurring extinctions (Ceballos et al., 2015). A variety of human activities are responsible for this accelerated rate, but habitat-loss due to land use is the biggest threat. Natural areas are vital to people and the planet. Natural areas provide many beneficial services, called ecosystem services, which are divided into subgroups; provisioning, regulating and cultural. Provisioning services include food, fuel and fibers for clothes and ropes, a service often forgotten in developed countries, but very important in developing nations. Regulating services clean and filter water; as well as regulate local, regional and global climate; prevent soil erosion; and mitigate extreme droughts and floods. Cultural services are the intrinsic value of nature for humans; i.e., the spiritual, aesthetic and recreational aspects offered by natural areas. Cultural services are more important than people might suspect, as a recent study has shown that people living in cities without green areas are more prone to developing mental illnesses (Engemann et al., 2019). Supporting services affect all other ecosystem services; they provide atmospheric oxygen, are responsible for soil formation and are part of the nutrient cycling.
Land use change has a great impact on climate change. Natural areas, especially forest, store carbon. When vast areas of forests are removed, huge amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are stored in the soil as well, which are released when the forest is removed, which also removes the area’s capacity to store carbon.
Agriculture’s huge land use footprint demands novel and more efficient farming practices. Vertical farming increases productivity and yield. Multiple layers of plants, stacked on top of each other, have a smaller footprint compared to conventional agriculture. To further increase productivity of the system, vertical farming is most often combined with hydroponics, the art of growing plants without soil. Rather, plant roots are in an aqueous nutrient solution, which provides them with everything they need, and can be tailored specifically for the plants being grown.
Closed System Benefits
Growing plants in this combination of vertical farming and hydroponics has unique advantages. Because the plants are grown in a controlled system with artificial lighting, it is possible to control all factors which are known to affect plant growth. This has been the dream of every farmer since crops were cultivated some 12,000 years ago. A closed system controls nutrient intake, air and root temperature, humidity, pH, day/night lighting cycle, energy output and even the concentration of CO2 in the air. All affect plant growth in interconnected and interacting ways.
Nutrients can be manipulated, and are generally divided into macro- and micronutrients. The importance of each changes from plant to plant and over each plant’s lifecycle. It is important to have the right nutrient balance and concentration. The concentration must be high enough for the plants to be sufficiently fed, without getting too high. Nutrients are salts, and if the concentration in the solution is too high nutrient uptake is retarded. Nutrients come in different forms (nutrient speciation), and only certain forms are available to the plants. Nutrient speciation is, in turn, affected by the pH of the nutrient solution and pH is affected by nutrients in the solution. These interactions add to the complexity when creating nutrient solutions for different species. Monitoring nutrient concentration and pH levels is needed as well to make sure conditions stay optimal.
Temperature rules all biological processes. Every cell has evolved and adapted to an optimum temperature range. Which temperatures are within the range is highly dependent on the organism’s life history; e.g., bacteria found in hot springs have a different range versus a Gibbon in the African rainforest. Temperature range mechanics are based on chemistry and physics. Chemical processes happen more rapidly within the optimal temperature range. When the system temperature is kept within the optimal range, the chemical processes responsible for plant growth happen more rapidly, leading to an increased growth rate. This aspect of plant growth is more complicated than it seems. Plants do not only have one temperature optimum, they have an optimum for the plant itself, and an optimum for the root zone. To get the optimal conditions, the nutrient solution must be kept at one temperature, and the room temperature at another. Moreover, plants tend to prefer warmer temperatures during the day and cooler temperatures during the night.
Humidity plays an important role in plant growth and development as it affects plant transpiration, which occurs through stomata (small openings) found on the underside of leaves. As water evaporates from the leaves through passive diffusion, humidity and temperature affect the transpiration rate. If the humidity outside the leaf is lower compared to inside the leaf, it will result in a higher rate of transpiration. Thus, maintaining higher humidity can reduce water vapor loss through the stomata. Transpiration creates a difference in vapor pressure within the plant. The vapor pressure is lower in the leaves and top of the plant compared to the plant roots. This mechanism aids in the movement of nutrients from the roots to the rest of the plant. Transpiration removes energy from the leaf, slightly cooling it.
The sun provides light for nearly all plants, but, as with nutrients, there is a difference between light forms. In nature, light differences depend mainly on location, season and weather, which affect the angle of the light and irradiance. In conventional farming, it is not feasible to affect irradiance in any meaningful way, unless a farm moves closer to equator. In vertical farming on the other hand, light is a tool to control plant growth. Regarding plants and light, it is mainly of interest to talk about photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), which is the spectra of wavelengths that plants can use for photosynthesis. Artificial lighting provides an opportunity to fine tune which wavelengths the plants get, and change the composition of the light during different growth stages. The pigments within the plants, which are responsible for photosynthesis, absorb light most efficiently in the blue and red regions. The effect of light from different parts of the light spectrum on plant growth differs from species to species. In general, blue light helps produce thicker, sturdier plants, while red light affects flowering time. This is obviously a gross oversimplification as there are many aspects to the effect of light. In most indoor horticultures, it is common to use “full-spectrum” light, which mimics sunlight and provide the plant with the full light spectrum. Full-spectrum is generally the best for plant growth, but using more specific light has its benefits. As some parts of the spectrum are absorbed less efficiently it is, to some extent, a waste of energy. Another aspect of light is the day and night cycle. This happens in nature when the seasons change and daylight hours shorten or lengthen. Most plants have evolved specific response to these changes. For instance, when days get longer it signals spring is coming and the plants should go into their vegetative growth cycle. This evolutionary response can be used to trick plants into different stages to promote flower production, or keep them in the vegetative state longer.
Plant productivity is affected by the CO2 concentration in the air. CO2 is used to create primary metabolites, which are the plant components directly responsible for its growth and development. Plants use the CO2 available in the air, and through photosynthesis it is used to make carbohydrates (used for the plant cells) and oxygen is released as a byproduct. CO2 enters the leaf through the stomata; when inside the leaf, the CO2 diffuses into the stroma where CO2 fixation happens. Fixation of CO2 is catalyzed by the enzyme RuBisCO. RuBisCO has an affinity for CO2 that is about 80% higher than the affinity for O2 (which leads to photorespiration instead of photosynthesis), but the ratio between CO2 and O2 is generally rather low inside the stroma. To increase the CO2 uptake by RuBisCO, it is possible to increase the concentration of CO2 in the air, making the CO2:O2 ratio higher, increasing the rate of photosynthesis. An increase in photosynthesis leads to increased production in the plant.
Keeping these factors within an optimal range for the given plant species greatly increases the productivity of the plants. They have a higher growth rate, produce more leaves and larger, more fragrant flowers, which affect the yield. Vertical farming systems make it possible to achieve yields 10 times greater (or more) than conventional farming. This increase is due to the increase in growth rate, ability to grow and harvest all year, higher plant density and to accommodate many layers within the indoor space.
As vertical farming is carried out in closed systems, resource waste is much lower than in conventional farming. The nutrient solution is kept in a closed loop system. It is added at the top of the system, runs through it feeding the plants along the way and is collected at the bottom for recycling. This results in hydroponic systems using 85-95% less water than conventional methods and reduces nutrient use, too. Another bonus of working within a closed system is the removal of external factors. Efficiently established and managed, vertical farms do not need pesticides or herbicides, as pests are nonexistent; as a result, the consumer ends up with products 100% free from herbicides, pesticides, GMOs, heavy metals or other toxins. Most importantly, vertical farms do not waste space.
The benefits of vertical farming and hydroponics do not stop at increased production, increased yield and less waste. Vertical farming can affect the biochemical composition of the plants in the systems. Other than the primary metabolites used in plant growth and development, plants produce a large number of secondary metabolites which are not directly involved in plant growth, but play an important indirect role. These metabolites often serve as the plant’s defense mechanism to deter herbivores. While they evolved to protect the plant, these secondary metabolites are the reason we pick and eat many plants, because their taste and aromas are, to a large extent, caused by metabolites. They are responsible for the citrusy aroma of lemons, the smell of pine in a coniferous forest, the bitter taste of hops, and the many beneficial effects provided by plants as well. The antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, soothing and healing properties provided by botanicals are all due to secondary metabolites.
Hydroponics and Cosmetics
This adds a new and even more interesting aspect to growing plants for cosmetic use in hydroponic systems. As these systems provide full control, we can affect the production of secondary metabolite through the use of specific nutrient solutions and growth methods. As mentioned, hydroponics and vertical farming does everything possible to create the best conditions for plant growth, but secondary metabolite production can be increased under stressful conditions. In nature, stress is mainly caused by the amounts of nutrients, water, sun or a combination of all three. When plants experience high stress levels they can enter a “survival mode” where the concentration of secondary metabolites is increased in the flowers, fruits or leaves depending on species, amount and type of stress, and plant lifecycle stage. The control provided by vertical farming allows us to activate the molecules of interest to create safer products for better health.
We combine knowledge about plant physiology with 30 years of experience working with natural products to create the best possible botanical extracts. One of our most popular products is rosemary extract, because of its great antioxidant properties. By exposing rosemary to certain stresses at specific times in the plant’s lifecycle it is possible to increase leaves’ carnosic acid content. Carnosic acid is a strong, naturally-occurring antioxidant (Loussouarn et al., 2017). This means that more potent antioxidants can be produced, enabling formulators to use less material. We use this in combination with our expertise about naturally derived antioxidants, from plants such as rosemary (Shukla, 2004). We are actively working on developing methods to increase the concentration of bioactives in a number of plant species. Not only are we increasing the plant’s potential, but we are developing ways to grow rare and endangered plant species. A growing number of plants used in cosmetics are being illegally and unsustainably farmed, while their quality is decreasing as well. Vertical farming is part of our Greener Technology initiative, where we strive to produce pure and high quality natural products in sustainable ways.
While vertical farming offers a lot of advantages over conventional farming, it has some drawbacks. Vertical farming generally has a high initial cost due to necessary equipment and enclosed space, and comparable to the cost of a farmer acquiring fields to start or increase production. Another downside, which is often used as an argument against vertical farming, is operating costs. As the system uses artificial light and needs environmental control (humidity, temperature) there is a significant use of energy, which adds to the electrical bill and CO2 production. Opponents of vertical farming insist this makes the products too pricey for the consumer and, due to the energy use, it is not sustainable. But keep in mind that conventional farming requires a lot of energy; in fact, from a CO2 emission standpoint, the agriculture sector is one of the biggest sinners. It might get the energy for the crops from the sun but plowing, tilling, sowing, applying fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, harvesting, cleaning and processing the harvest, requires vast amounts of energy. Most of these steps are unnecessary in vertical farming and none of them require fuel-guzzling tractors. Vertical farming also has the advantage of growing large amounts of crops in close proximity to cities or processing facilities where the plants are needed limiting the need for transportation of raw material.
Clean and renewable energy is becoming more efficient, cheaper and increasingly available at an incredibly faster rate, giving vertical farming an added advantage over conventional agriculture and making products from vertical farming more price competitive. Another important factor to bear in mind when comparing vertical farming and conventional agriculture costs is subsidies. Last year, global agricultural subsidies topped $1 trillion, artificially sustaining the industry and keeping product prices down. At the same time, subsidies remove the incentive for innovative, sustainable farming practices. If vertical farming were included in these subsidies, it would substantially decrease costs and become much more competitive. Vertical farming is even more cost effective when “true costs” are factored. True cost includes the cost of ecosystem destruction and repair services. The true cost of the current food and land use practices is estimated to be $12 trillion, according to Food and Land Use Coalition. In short, we cannot afford not to change our current practices.
At ICSC, we take a holistic approach when we make new products, formulations or production methods. It is not enough to look at the economic baseline, we know how important it is to consider nature’s baseline. Our products are all natural, derived from plants, and our mantra is one of respect for the natural world and all the species that inhabit it. We are focused on providing the highest quality natural products to our consumers so they can stay healthy and beautiful, while we keep nature healthy and beautiful as well.
About the Authors
Markus Mellerup is an agronomy coordinator at International Cosmetics Science Centre A/S (ICSC, www.icsc.dk) based in Denmark. Prof. Dr. Vijai K.S. Shukla is the president and founder of ICSC A/S (www.icsc.dk). He can be reached via email: email@example.com
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