In the midst of a patchwork quilt of agricultural land in North Yorkshire, England, stands a boxy white building that is as sterile, smooth and right-angled as a hospital. Inside this 2,400-square-foot structure are two sets of French doors that swing open to reveal two identical rooms bathed in eerie purple light. Here, scientists wearing white coats, hairnets and face masks monitor racks of baby green plants. They’re testing variables not only to increase crop yields but also to create the best versions of produce — greener, leafier, loaded with more vitamins — the world has ever seen. But rather than altering the plants’ breeding, the scientists at this research facility are experimenting with the environment in an effort to create optimal growing conditions.
Indoor vertical farms and research centers like this one at the Stockbridge Technology Centre — a labyrinth of agricultural land, greenhouses, culture rooms and laboratories that has focused since 2001 on horticultural technical advances — are often described as transformative ways to meet the global population’s growing demand for food. They’re also good business. The vertical-farming industry is expected to grow from $2.5 billion in 2017 to $13.9 billion by 2024, according to a 2018 Global Market Insights report.
Consistent lighting, extra carbon dioxide and superclean, bug-free environments allow these farms of the future to operate like factories, efficiently churning out hundreds of tons of fresh produce annually no matter what the weather is brewing up outside.
But this particular facility is hoping to supercharge its harvest. Dr. Rhydian Beynon-Davies, head of novel growing systems at STC, is using innovative lighting and other plant-growing technology at the center’s new Vertical Farming Development Facility to manipulate the molecular characteristics in plants without any genetic modification. “[Technology] provides added benefits like growing for propagation purposes or to impart characteristics to the plant, such as a pharmaceutical crop, depending on what’s needed,” says Beynon-Davies.
While Beynon-Davies cannot describe what types his facility might grow here, pharmaceutical crops are plants that contain natural compounds that can be used as medicine. The leafy species Plantago major, for instance, contains a flavonoid compound that might prevent cancer.
The development facility educates horticulture entrepreneurs and local farmers on the potential of indoor farming. The vertical farm is set up as two identical windowless rooms filled with four tiers of hydroponic (soil-free) racks that can be used to compare growth under different conditions. Right now, these racks are filled with leafy greens like mustard and herbs like chives.
The researchers, who use data from sensors and computers to remotely monitor and control the rooms, are testing different levels of humidity, CO2, temperature, nutrients and light exposure. They share what they learn with potential investors and curious farmers who have commissioned these research projects and might want to launch their own vertical farms after seeing what this small test site can do. “This is not a commercial food-production vertical farm,” says Emma Moreau Bouché, growth leader at Current, powered by GE, the company that built a special LED lighting system for the site. “It’s a tech center that transfers research into tech applications and makes recommendations.” (In November, GE announced plans to sell Current to the New York-based private equity firm American Industrial Partners.)
You may remember from school that plants use a process called photosynthesis to convert light, CO2 and water into nutrients. Hence, at the STC, Current’s lights play a leading role by changing light waves to influence much more than just brightness. Hanging just inches above each plant on every row of the racks, thin bars of Current’s Arize Lynk LED lights fill the rooms with a soft, rosy glow. Daisy-chained together like Christmas lights, they emit a rainbow of color waves to the plants. “[The system] does this by using specific white, red and blue LEDs, and we can change the ratio to create particular lighting recipes,” says Malcolm Yare, the horticulture business development manager for GE Current in Europe.
Red works well for fruits and flowers, he says, while blues help create more organic matter in plants, such as dense, compact heads of lettuce. White light contains red, green and blue wavelengths and is useful for monitoring plant growth.
Beynon-Davies says he’s working with this color spectrum in conjunction with other environmental variables to optimize the plants’ benefits for humans, such as growing more fiber and vitamins. “Indoor light gives plants as much light as they need — but it also allows us to manipulate different compounds by changing the amount of sugar from photosynthesis in the leaf or stem,” he says. “If we alter the different wave bands, we can change the signaling pathways within the plant on a molecular level.”
By shining a light on a plant accustomed to shade in nature, or vice versa, he says, that plant will respond by forcing its energy into other areas. “By altering the spectra you can alter the profile in these compounds nutritionally and in taste and smell,” he says. In addition to changing the content of vitamins and minerals in plants, he is experimenting with different light waves to see if their tastes might become earthier and more vibrant, or go the other direction and become blander. He said that down the road, he will be experimenting with pharmaceutical plants.
Farmers and entrepreneurs who visit STC to learn about vertical farming can deploy techniques and advice immediately, as opposed to the years it takes for such educational techniques to come out of similar university experimental greenhouses, Yare says.
Says Moreau Bouché: “Vertical farming is in its infancy, and it is going to revolutionize food security and innovation in produce.”