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Could Soil-Free Farming Prevent Future Food Insecurity?

Could Soil-Free Farming Prevent Future Food Insecurity?

Researchers have identified a new method of soil-free farming that can help to improve food security as climate change and soil erosion limit our ability to grow crops.

Soil-free, computer-controlled farms could offer a solution for future crop growing as climate change and soil erosion limit farmers’ ability to grow, according to new research.

The research, published in New Phytologist and led by scientists at the University of Bristol, John Innes Centre and LettUs Grow, describe the growing environmental and economic case for vertical farming methods which could see crops grown in previously unfarmable environments such as the deserts of Dubai to countries with short daylight hours like Iceland.

Related: From Insects to Vertical Farming, The Future of Food is Sustainable

Vertical farming is a type of indoor agriculture where crops are cultivated in stacked systems with water, lighting and nutrient sources carefully controlled and supported by artificial intelligence in which machines are taught to manage day-to-day horticultural tasks. The sector is predicted to grow by 21 percent by 2025.

The interdisciplinary study combining biology and engineering identifies future research areas needed to increase the sustainable growth of vertical farming using precision agriculture, including aeroponic cultivation methods that use nutrient-enriched aerosols in place of soil that are applied directly to the roots.

This method is believed to resolve many of the physiological constraints that occur using hydroponic systems, such as improved aeration around the roots, meaning yields of up to 70 percent greater can be achieved. However, the systems need extensive farm infrastructure and control technology.

Bethany Eldridge from the University of Bristol and lead author of the study said, “Given that 80 percent of agricultural land worldwide is reported to have moderate or severe erosion, the ability to grow crops in a soil-free 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.”

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. The researchers are looking 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 (compounds secreted by the roots of plants) within the nutrient solutions of closed aeroponic systems

“This knowledge would be important for fine-tuning the growing environment to encourage the growth of these beneficial microbes or the development of a probiotic mixture, similar to a probiotic yogurt, that could be added as a supplement to help boost plant performance,” Eldrige said.

During the current global pandemic, vertical farms have demonstrated on a small scale how this type of farming can be an important component of a reliable food supply chain amidst shortages. However, they stress that knowledge gaps remain and this study highlights the future research needed to understand how plants grow and respond during aeroponic cultivation.