With climate change, urbanization and other threats endangering farmland across the globe, innovations that grow food in cities and other limited spaces are vital to food security and shortening the food supply chain. Vertical farming, which grows crops in stacked layers, is a promising option that allows farmers to grow crops in nontraditional spaces, such as vacant warehouses, taking up less land. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) is awarding a $1,061,576 grant through its Precision Indoor Plants (PIP) consortium to SKY HIGH: Vertical Farming, a revolution in plant production, a program to advance vertical farming by researching plant genetics and indoor growing conditions that help crops thrive and enhance desired qualities.
“The sky is the limit for vertical farming, but we first must understand which genetic traits help the plant flourish in these environments,” said FFAR Executive Director Dr. Sally Rockey. “For thousands of years, crops have been developed for outdoor environments. Thus, as crops move indoors, the plants themselves must be bred to grow indoors.”
Vertical farming provides greater control of climate and nutrition conditions than outdoor or greenhouse facilities. Crops grown in vertical farming environments have the potential for enhanced nutritional value, longer shelf life, better taste and a shorter supply chain – plus they require little water and do not need pesticides. Yet, there are few researchers adapting crops to make them economical and sustainable in these production systems.
The SKY HIGH program, led by Dr. Leo Marcelis of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, is a collaboration of 18 organizations that are conducting research to make vertical agriculture cheaper, more nutritious and energy efficient. PIP’s partnership with SKY HIGH builds on their current research on strawberries, potatoes, lettuce and basil. The research team is exploring factors that increase crop nutrients and how environmental inputs affect taste, appearance and shelf life. The researchers are also identifying genetic traits that accelerate the development of crop varieties with specific traits in a shorter time frame – research that will benefit indoor and outdoor agriculture. Ultimately, this research is developing crops that respond well to indoor environments and designing vertical farms with favorable conditions for their growth.
“Vertical farming is a novel system for producing crops,” said Dr. Marcelis. “To realize the full potential, we need fundamental understanding of the different components of vertical farming. We want to achieve this by a coordinated effort of researchers from disciplines ranging from genetics, metabolomics, physiology, horticulture, machine learning, climate control, energy systems and building physics.”
In addition to these projects, with PIP’s help SKY HIGH is expanding its lettuce research to study tip burn—the browning of leaf edges—in head lettuce, speed breeding in lettuce and lettuce’s reaction to daylight cycles. The SKY HIGH researchers are analyzing how the structure of lettuce affects the distribution of nutrients like calcium, which is thought to play a role in tip burn. With this information, the researchers will have a better understanding of how tip burn develops and can grow new lettuce varieties that reduce its damage. Researchers are also exploring breeding lettuce varieties to fast-track growth and speed up flowering and seed formation. Lettuce’s reaction to daylight cycles affects indoor growing conditions, and this project is identifying ways to use different light schedules to promote desired traits such as increased yield. The results of the research impacts both indoor and outdoor lettuce, making it a sustainable, high-quality crop.
Matching funds are being provided by Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, Bayer, Bosman Van Zaal, Certhon, Dutch Research Council (NWO), Fresh Forward, Grodan, GrowX, Own Greens, Priva, Signify, Solynta, Unilever and Van Bergen Kolpa Architects for a total investment of $6,630,342.