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Space to grow, or grow in space – how vertical farms could be ready to take-off

Vertical farms with their soil-free, computer-controlled environments may sound like sci-fi. But there is a growing environmental and economic case for them, according to new research laying out radical ways of putting food on our plates.

The interdisciplinary study combining biology and engineering sets down steps towards accelerating the growth of this branch of precision agriculture, including the use of aeroponics which uses nutrient-enriched aerosols in place of soil.

Carried out by the John Innes Centre, the University of Bristol and the aeroponic technology provider LettUs Grow, the study identifies future research areas needed to accelerate the sustainable growth of vertical farming using aeroponic systems.

Dr Antony Dodd, a group leader at the John Innes Centre and senior author of the study, says: “By bringing fundamental biological insights into the context of the physics of growing plants in an aerosol, we can help the vertical farming business become more productive more quickly, while producing healthier food with less environmental impact.”

Jack Farmer, Chief Scientific Officer at LettUs Grow and one of the authors of the study, adds: “Climate change is only going to increase the demand for this technology. Projected changes in regional weather patterns and water availability are likely to impact agricultural productivity soon. Vertical farming offers the ability to grow high value nutritious crops in a climate resilient manner all year round, proving a reliable income stream for growers.”

Vertical farming is a type of indoor agriculture where crops are cultivated in stacked systems with water, lighting and nutrient sources carefully controlled.

It is part of a rapidly growing sector supported by artificial intelligence in which machines are taught to manage day to day horticultural tasks. The industry is set to grow annually by 21% by 2025 according to one commercial forecast (Grand View Research, 2019).

Green benefits include better use of space because vertical farms can be sited in urban locations, fewer food miles, isolation from pathogens, reduction in soil degradation and nutrient and water recapturing and recycling.

Vertical farms also allow product consistency, price stabilization, and cultivation at latitudes incompatible with certain crops such as the desert or arctic.

“Vertical systems allow us to extend the latitude range on which crops can be grown on the planet, from the deserts of Dubai to the 4-hour winter days of Iceland. In fact, if you were growing crops on Mars you would need to use this kind of technology because there is no soil,” says Dr Dodd.

The study, which appears in the journal New Phytologist, lays out seven steps - strategic areas of future research needed to underpin increased productivity and sustainability of aeroponic vertical farms.

These seek to understand: 

  • Why aeroponic cultivation can be more productive than hydroponic or soil cultivation.
  • The relationship between aeroponic cultivation and 24-hour circadian rhythms of plants.
  • Root development of a range of crops in aeroponic conditions.
  • The relationship between aerosol droplet size and deposition and plant performance.
  • How we can establish frameworks for comparing vertical farming technologies for a range of crops.
  • How aeroponic methods affect microbial interactions with plant roots.
  • The nature of recycling of root exudates (fluids secreted by the roots of plants) within the nutrient solutions of closed aeroponic systems.

The report argues that a driver of technological innovation in vertical farms is minimizing operation costs whilst maximizing productivity - and that investment in fundamental biological research has a significant role.

Dr Dodd’s research area covers circadian rhythms - biological clocks which align plant physiology and molecular processes to the day to day cycle of light and dark. He recently completed a year-long Royal Society Industry Fellowship with LettUs Grow.

This involved combining Dr Dodd’s expertise in circadian rhythms and plant physiology with the work of LettUs Grow’s team of biologists and engineers to design optimal aeroponic cultivation regimens. This is a key area of investigation as these molecular internal timers will perform differently in vertical farms.

Aeroponic platforms are often used to grow high value crops such as salads, pak choi, herbs, small brassica crops, pea shoots and bean shoots. LettUs Grow are also working on growth regimens for fruiting and rooting crops such as strawberries and carrots, as well as aeroponic propagation of trees for both fruit and forestry.

John Innes Centre researchers have bred a line of broccoli adapted to grow indoors for a major supermarket and one of the aims of research will be to test how we can genetically tune more crops to grow in the controlled space of vertical farms.

Bethany Eldridge, a researcher at the University of Bristol studying root-environment interactions and first author of the study adds: “Given that 80% of agricultural land worldwide is reported to have moderate or severe erosion, the ability to grow crops in a soilless system with minimal fertilizers and pesticides is advantageous because it provides an opportunity to grow crops in areas facing soil erosion or other environmental issues such as algal blooms in local water bodies that may have been driven by traditional, soil-based, agriculture.”

Lilly Manzoni, Head of Research and Development at LettUs Grow and one the authors of the study says, “This paper is unique because it is broader than a typical plant research paper, it combines the expertise of engineers, aerosol scientists, plant biologists and horticulturalists. The wonderful thing about controlled environment agriculture and aeroponics is that it is truly interdisciplinary”

The study Getting to the Roots of Aeroponic Indoor Farming appears in the New Phytologist journal.

Notes for editors

The full report is available at https://nph.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nph.16780

Press contact: Adrian Galvin, tel: 01603 450238 email: adrian.galvin@jic.ac.uk

LettUs Grow’s aeroponic research center is controlled by software called Ostara which controls and adjusts the growing conditions, ensuring the plants are grown in an environment that has been tailored to their specific needs. It has the ability tune the aeroponic irrigation cycles along with the climate and lights.

About the John Innes Centre

The John Innes Centre is an independent, international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology.

Our mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge of nature’s diversity to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health, and wellbeing, and engage with policy makers and the public.

To achieve these goals, we establish pioneering long-term research objectives in plant and microbial science, with a focus on genetics. These objectives include promoting the translation of research through partnerships to develop improved crops and to make new products from microbes and plants for human health and other applications. We also create new approaches, technologies and resources that enable research advances and help industry to make new products. The knowledge, resources and trained researchers we generate help global societies address important challenges including providing sufficient and affordable food, making new products for human health and industrial applications, and developing sustainable bio-based manufacturing.

This provides a fertile environment for training the next generation of plant and microbial scientists, many of whom go on to careers in industry and academia, around the world.

The John Innes Centre is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and is supported by the John Innes Foundation through provision of research accommodation, capital funding and long-term support of the Rotation PhD programme.

For more information about the John Innes Centre visit our website www.jic.ac.uk

About LettUs Grow

LettUs Grow is a Bristol-based indoor farming technology provider, designing irrigation and control technology for vertical, indoor and controlled environment farms. Their mission is to reduce the waste and carbon footprint of fresh produce, by empowering anyone to grow delicious food near its point of consumption.

Founded in 2015, the company conducted an extensive period of research and product development before patenting their proprietary aeroponic technology in 2017. Having demonstrated significant yield increases using the technology, they are now building commercial aeroponic systems for growers around the UK.

LettUs Grow’s aeroponic research center is controlled by software called Ostara which controls and adjusts the growing conditions, ensuring the plants are grown in an environment that has been tailored to their specific needs. It has the ability tune the aeroponic irrigation cycles along with the climate and lights.

www.lettusgrow.com

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £498 million in world-class bioscience in 2017-18. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

More information about UK Research and Innovation.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes.


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