Carrots might not scream when pulled from the ground, but new technology is giving vegetables a voice in how they are raised. Microchipped plants can now send text messages to a farmer's cell phone and ask for water.
"It's akin to a clip-on earring, very thin and smaller than a postage stamp, and is affixed to the plant leaf," said Richard Stoner, President of AgriHouse, a company marketing the technology.
"The farmer would just need their regular cell phone service, and the plant would send a text message when it needed water."
For areas that receive regular and plentiful rainfall, such detailed crop monitoring might not be useful or economical. But in the western United States, where much of the water comes from underground aquifers, conserving water, and more importantly, conserving the electricity that pumps it to the surface and across fields, could save farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
Water in the open spaces of the west is valuable, but it's virtually worth its weight in gold in outer space. The original cell phone for plants was developed years ago by scientists working with NASA on future manned missions to the moon and Mars.
"You need plants on future space missions," said Hans-Dieter Seelig, a scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who worked on the original NASA project.
"They take out waste carbon dioxide, produce breathable oxygen, and the astronauts can use them as food," said Seelig.
During their research, the NASA scientists concluded that astronauts wouldn't be able to take anywhere near enough food and supplies for an estimated two-year mission to Mars. The pilots and Ph.D.'s selected for the trip would have to spend most of their time as celestial subsistence farmers.
To reduce the amount of time and supplies necessary to grow crops, scientists clipped sensors, wired to a central computer, to plants so astronauts would know exactly when and how much water to give them.
During the initial NASA tests the scientists were able to reduce the amount of water necessary to grow plants by 10 percent to 40 percent.
Saving time and money
Sustainability in space might keep astronauts alive, and on Earth it's likely to save farmers time and money.
"We are talking about saving hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for farmers," using the existing wired system, Stoner said.
The existing sensors have to be connected to a power source to take readings and transmit them over commercial cell phone towers. Stoner hopes that future sensors can be equipped with batteries, solar panels or even piezoelectric generators to generate the power necessary to run the sensors and transmitters.
Adding more sensors across wider areas will enable more detailed management of farms, saving farmers even more, says Stoner.
Water in the western United States might be relatively cheap, but the electric bills to pump the water from underground aquifers do add up. And there is no guarantee that the water will remain cheap either. Being sustainable could end up being good business.
"We can't be sustainable just in outer space," said Seelig. "That same principle has to be applied here on Earth as well."