Vertical Future, a UK-based next-generation vertical farming technology business, has successfully completed research to develop a new way to deliver sustainable fresh produce with zero agrichemical inputs.
The Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) Heirloom Optimisation & Pathogen Control for Seeds (CHOPS) was led by Vertical Future alongside NIAB and Zayndu Ltd. The research was funded by Innovate UK.
The project focused on reducing the pathogen contamination of seeds used in CEA and optimizing the resulting yields. Successful completion of the research ensures that crops become more affordable and better quality through increased efficiencies and decreased losses, as well as boosting exports of UK-made CEA equipment.
Conventional and organic agriculture are dependent on various agrochemicals to ensure they are free from disease and satisfy production volume needs. CEA has moved crop growing away from fields and the disease pressures that come from the open air and soils, in doing so the need for agrichemicals has been reduced.
The outer shell of seeds is the main source of diseases in CEA facilities. While agrochemicals could be used to remove the causes of disease, it is better for consumers and the environment to remove the need for this process altogether. The Vertical Future-led project has refined a seed pre-treatment method that uses only air and electricity to enhance growth of the germinating plant and to kill any fungi or bacteria on the surface of the seed. When applied at scale, this pre-treatment will remove the most significant sources of disease within CEA facilities, whilst improving yields and producing more nutritious and flavorful foods.
Seeds have been developed for broadacre farming for generations. Many of these optimizations have been designed to reduce disease – key when growing crops in unpredictable outdoor environments. This has shifted focus from taste and nutrient density. By removing the need to focus on breeding disease resistance, seeds for CEA environments can be targeted at improving taste and nutrition. The technology also allows older ‘heirloom’ varieties of seeds to be used in CEA – allowing forgotten flavours to be grown again.
Using heirloom varieties, the CHOPS project has seen yield increases of more than 6x compared to varieties used in the field today.
“As a result of the project, we have already grown crops, such as spinach, with much better flavors than their conventional alternatives," said Jamie Burrows, Founder & CEO of Vertical Future. "By using DNA sequencing, we can take our learnings to other crops by pinpointing genetic markers that positively impact taste and nutrition. The lessons from this project are even more meaningful, if diseases can be removed from seeds before they are planted without the need for chemicals. We could be looking at a new era of agriculture. This technology has the potential to end the need for excessive chemicals in crop production and usher in a healthier future for farming.
“The seed treatment has also proven to be a biostimulant, providing enhanced germination and yield, illustrating the wider benefits of the technology by increasing production. NIAB worked with us to specify a high-health seed protocol. This support means the CEA sector has a better framework for seed testing and certification that provides for healthier, higher-yielding crops. We have already planned a follow-up to this project with NIAB, looking at soft fruit seed material and are evaluating the next phase of our R&D work with Zayndu.”
“Application of cutting-edge indoor farming technologies to heirloom varieties, many of which have amazing flavor and nutritional properties offers a route back to the mainstream market for these pre-existing varieties," added Dr Tom Wood, NIAB, Research Program Leader – Plant Pathology. "The natural combination of NIAB’s expertise in seed health with Zayndu’s cold plasma sterilization technology and Vertical Future’s indoor farming techniques is perfect for bringing these varieties back to people’s plates in a sustainable way.
“Providing access to assured high-health status seed will help to improve grower’s confidence that they are not introducing potentially harmful organisms into their CEA systems, and this will help to prevent disease outbreaks”
“We’re standing plant breeding on its head. Instead of focusing on disease resistance, breeders can get back to thinking about flavor," concluded Ralph Weir, Zayndu CEO. "Fusing Zayndu’s technology with Vertical Future’s ability to grow in pathogen-free CEA environments, along with NIAB’s seed and plant health expertise will put more flavor on the consumer’s plate - at a lower cost. An actual game-changer!”