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Farms of the future: soil-free farming in the desert

LettUs Grow vertical farming
Photos: Jack Wiseall, LettUs Grow

New research describing the economic case of vertical farming was published in the New Phytologist and was lead by LettUs Grow, University of Bristol and John Innes Centre.

The study placed emphasis on the potential for soil-free computer-controlled farms, in an effort to tackle key issues, including CO2 emissions, waste, ecosystem collapse and food security.

Vertical farming bypasses many issues, such as climate change and soil erosion, and allows for plant growth in areas which were previously seen as unfarmable environments, such as Dubai or Iceland, where there’s little daylight. This is achieved through indoor agriculture, where crops are grown in stacked systems with plenty of access to nutrient-rich water and highly efficient lighting.

LettUs Grow produces systems which use AI to control the environment. This results in the machines being taught to carry out horticultural tasks, allowing for the rapid growth of systems and minimal management while achieving maximum yield.

Vertical farms can be set up nearly anywhere, as they require minimal space, eg. an urban warehouse, disused tunnels or other small spaces. This reduces food miles, reduces soil erosion and isolates the plants from pests and pathogens.

Given that 80 per cent of agricultural land worldwide is reported to have moderate or severe erosion, the ability to grow crops in a soil-free system with minimal fertilisers and pesticides is advantageous because it provides an opportunity to grow crops in areas facing soil erosion or other environmental issues such as algal blooms in local water bodies that may have been driven by traditional, soil-based, agriculture.

We are aware that higher yields can be obtained from plants grown in aeroponic vertical farming set-ups, however, we still have relatively little knowledge about how plants grow and respond to the soil less growing environment during aeroponic cultivation.

For example, similar to your gut microbiota that play an important role in digesting your food and helping you to take up vital nutrients and minerals, plants also form a community of microbes around their roots that help promote plant growth. However, the formation of these microbial communities around the roots is very sensitive to the environment that plants are grown in and we have very little knowledge about how these microbiomes may form during aeroponic vertical farming.

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 yoghurt, that could be added as a supplement to help boost plant performance.

Bethany Eldridge, a researcher at the University of Bristol
LettUs Grow root inspection

Vertical farms in Dundee, Scotland have been used during the pandemic to show that local and efficient farming can be used as a reliable source of food supply, despite shortages elsewhere.

This multidisciplinary collaboration will guide the sustainable and economically beneficial intensification of vertical farming that may vastly differ between location, crops and economies.

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 in the near future. 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.

Jack Farmer, Chief Scientific Officer at LettUs Grow

LettUs Grow specialises in aeroponic systems and was founded by former University of Bristol students. LettUs Grow was recently featured in the Financial Times’ Food Revolution:

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