Is vertical farming the future of agriculture?

23-04-2021    13:58   |    Food Ingredients 1st

Vertical farming is a relatively recent development that can allow us to grow crops in a controlled environment and provide an alternative approach to conventional farming.


This is according to the UK-based John Innes Centre, which is teaming up with LettUs Grow, a start-up engineering novel indoor farm hardware and software to grow a variety of crops using aeroponics.

Vertical farms are free from the pressures created by extremes and variations in weather, isolated from pests, and allows crop growth at a broader range of latitudes.

However, developing indoor vertical farms requires a good understanding of all the requirements each crop plant will need for optimal growth and development.

The John Innes Centre says this collaboration will help make vertical farming more productive and sustainable.

England-based LettUs Grow uses systems that use considerably less water than traditional agriculture and can “dramatically boost” crop productivity compared with hydroponics.

Sustainable farming 
Calum Graham, a University of Bristol SWBio PhD student based at the John Innes Centre and part of Dr. Antony Dodd’s group, completed a PIPS placement at the LettUs Grow HQ during autumn 2019.

At LettUs Grow, he worked in the scientific research and development team, where his primary role was to optimize growth conditions and irrigation cycles to promote uniform crop growth.

Ricardo Lopes, a plant specialist at LettUs Grow and Chelsea Dow. (Credit: Jack Wiseall, LettUs Grow)

His findings helped inform LettUs Grow about growing protocol and influenced their hardware applications to reduce water use. These changes could ultimately lead to more sustainable farms.

Graham also contributed to an article that sets out how plants grown as crops interact with the technologies that drive aeroponic farms and led by Dr. Dodd, who also held a Royal Society Industry Fellowship at LettUs Grow.

This article provides biological insights into why aeroponic cultivation can improve productivity compared with hydroponics and proposes a new model for the interaction and retention of aerosol particles by crop roots, which Graham helped to refine.

The article also sets out several strategic areas of future research to improve aeroponic vertical farms’ productivity and sustainability.

Conventional versus vertical
The relationship between the John Innes Centre and LettUs Grow relationship continues to expand, with PhD student Deirdre Lynch joining the institute to work in this area.

Deirdre is funded by the UKRI-BBSRC Norwich Research Park Doctoral Training Partnership and started her Ph.D. last September.

Deirdre explains: “My interest in vertical farming was first piqued several years ago during my undergraduate degree at NUI Galway when I stumbled upon a video online that showed the science and benefits of the emerging industry.”

The concept stuck with her as she learned more about modern agricultural practices and how unsustainable they can be in land use, monocultures, nitrogen and phosphorus run-off, and pesticide use.

To Deirdre, vertical farming seemed to answer these problems – a closed environment in which crops can be stacked, nutrients can be recycled, and pests can be controlled.

Nurturing yields
Deirdre’s PhD project involves collaboration with LettUs Grow, with a long-term goal to improve the year-round growth consistency of crops in vertical farms to ensure reliable yields during and outside traditional growing seasons.

Circadian rhythms play an important role in regulating crop production in vertical farms because the grower can control day and night conditions.

However, the crop’s performance under artificially controlled conditions is ultimately determined by its genetics, affecting how it responds to its environment.

Through these links between scientists at the John Innes Centre and LettUs Grow, vertical farming can become more efficient while also remaining a sustainable business.

Understanding the interaction between the circadian clock of suitable crops and these artificial growing environments will be a practical step to boost productivity while reducing costs. The collaboration is evidence of how scientists can work with industry to enhance existing technologies to improve future agriculture sustainability.

Edited by Gaynor Selby

Source: Food Ingredients 1st

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