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Could soil-free ‘vertical farms’ hold the key to future food production?

PUBLISHED: 00:01 14 July 2020 | UPDATED: 08:16 14 July 2020

Aeroponic 'vertical farms' could become an increasingly important way of producing food in the future, according to a new study by Norwich scientists at the John Innes Centre, technology firm LettUs Grow and the University of Bristol. Picture: Jack Wiseall

Aeroponic 'vertical farms' could become an increasingly important way of producing food in the future, according to a new study by Norwich scientists at the John Innes Centre, technology firm LettUs Grow and the University of Bristol. Picture: Jack Wiseall

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Vertical farms with soil-free, computer-controlled environments may sound like science-fiction – but researchers say they could become a vital source of food on our changing planet, or even beyond.

Aeroponic 'vertical farms' could become an increasingly important way of producing food in the future, according to a new study by Norwich scientists at the John Innes Centre, technology firm LettUs Grow and the University of Bristol. Picture: Jack WiseallAeroponic 'vertical farms' could become an increasingly important way of producing food in the future, according to a new study by Norwich scientists at the John Innes Centre, technology firm LettUs Grow and the University of Bristol. Picture: Jack Wiseall

Scientists at the Norwich-based John Innes Centre are among the authors of a new study which explores how biology and engineering can combine to accelerate the development of aeroponic growing systems which use nutrient-enriched aerosols instead of soil.

This type of indoor agriculture – where crops are cultivated in stacked platforms with their water, lighting and nutrient sources carefully controlled by machines – is already used to grow high-value crops such as salads, pak choi, herbs, small brassicas, pea shoots and bean shoots.

The research looks at where future research and funding should be targeted to improve the future productivity of aeroponic vertical farms, so they can make better use of limited space in cities, optimise natural resources by recapturing and recycling nutrients and water, and allow cultivation in inhospitable locations like deserts, the Arctic, or even space.

Dr Antony Dodd, a group leader at the John Innes Centre and senior author of the study, said: “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 four-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.

Aeroponic 'vertical farms' could become an increasingly important way of producing food in the future, according to a new study by Norwich scientists at the John Innes Centre, technology firm LettUs Grow and the University of Bristol. Picture: Jack WiseallAeroponic 'vertical farms' could become an increasingly important way of producing food in the future, according to a new study by Norwich scientists at the John Innes Centre, technology firm LettUs Grow and the University of Bristol. Picture: Jack Wiseall

“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.”

John Innes Centre researchers have already 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 more crops can be “genetically tuned” to grow in the controlled space of vertical farms.

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Other authors of the study include the University of Bristol and aeroponic technology provider LettUs Grow, which is working on systems for fruiting and rooting crops such as strawberries and carrots, as well as aeroponic propagation of trees for both fruit and forestry.

Jack Farmer, chief scientific officer at LettUs Grow said: “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.”

Dr Dodd’s area of research includes circadian rhythms, the 24-hour biological clocks which align plant processes to the day-to-day cycle of light and dark. Understanding how these processes perform in vertical farms is one of the key future research priorities outlined in the study, as well as how roots develop under aeroponic conditions, the relationship between aerosol droplet size and plant performance, and how soil-free methods affect microbial interactions with plant roots.

• The study, named “Getting to the Roots of Aeroponic Indoor Farming”, appears in the scientific journal New Phytologist.


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