Vertical Farming: The Scientific View



A guest blog from Rudy Maor, Chief Technology Officer, OneFarm

“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security” (Prof. John Allen Paulos).

In a world overwhelmed with uncertainty and food insecurity, we believe that vertical farming is an island of stability. Our mission at OneFarm is to provide local, fresh and affordable food year-round, starting with our first farm in Newmarket, Suffolk. This ambitious goal requires the use of state-of-the-art equipment to enable ultimate control over plants’ environment, and deep understanding of plant biology to determine the optimal growth conditions. In this blog, I will describe some of the research efforts done at OneFarm which helps us to continuously optimise of our growth process to ensure the best quality products for our customers, while also benefiting the planet.

IGS — Basil in growth trays

“Seasonal” is now 365 days per year

We all know that fruit and vegetables are at their best during peak season. Nothing beats the taste of that freshly-picked crunchy lettuce, those ripe strawberries or the aromatic basil. At OneFarm, we create a micro-environment that is perfectly suitable for each crop all year-round. We understand the needs of our plants at all stages of their growth cycle and adjust our recipes (the mixture of light, nutrients and heat we use to grow the plants) accordingly. We have absolute temperature and humidity control and ultra-uniform heat distribution, with less than 2°C variation across each growth tray (the units that we use to grow the crops). And our dynamic light systems provide plants with the exact light intensity and wave-length needed for optimal growth at any time. We do all this 365 days per year, rain or shine, heat-wave or frost. For our plants, weather in Newmarket is always perfect, and they return the favour by providing high yields and superior quality year-round.

Less waste, safely

It is estimated that up to 40% of bagged salads purchased in the UK are discarded every year. This is mainly due to short sell-by dates, as result of the long journey imported salads endure before reaching consumers, and due to the sub-optimal conditions in which these vegetables were grown. At OneFarm, we significantly reduce food waste due to the much shorter food mileage (typically less than 100 miles) and the shorter time it takes our products to reach shelves from the time of harvest. Our research also includes developing and optimizing ways to further improve shelf-life, by altering the growth conditions of our plants, therefore reducing waste even further.

We understand the major variables that affect shelf life and we know how to control those through specific light regime and natural nutrition supplements. All parts of our property are not at risk of contamination, unlike open field crops, despite using zero pesticides and no GMOs. We never use peat or animal-manure in our growth cycle, both major sources for serious food contaminations that were previously responsible for some disease-causing bacterial outbreaks in field-grown lettuce. Our growth towers are air-locked and both water and air are filtered and UV-treated before reaching the plants.

Nutrition: we take it personally

Vertical farming products have the potential for superior nutritional values, compared with open field and greenhouse crops. For example, the role of light in regulating biosynthesis of various metabolites in plants is well-established. This includes compounds affecting flavour, aroma and nutritional values such as carotenoids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. The use of bio-stimulants, such as various extracts and other natural compounds is also known to improve nutritional values in certain crops. This includes antioxidants and even certain cancer-fighting glucosinolates. In addition, we can use heirloom varieties, which may not survive well in greenhouses and open fields, but can thrive in our safe and controlled environment.

Vertical farming has the potential to address personalised nutritional needs and preferences. For example, some research reported the cultivation of low-potassium kale, which could potentially benefit certain people with kidney disorders. We are also researching ways to improve nutritional values of crops in ways that could accommodate specific needs of certain populations, which are considered to be at higher risk from nutritional deficits.

Concluding remarks

Research and development are key elements of ensuring we remain at the forefront of local food production. We optimise growth recipes, try new non-modified seeds, test novel technologies and natural plant nutrition, so we can provide our customers with sustainable, nutritional, affordable and locally-produced food year-round. Our R&D efforts also include expanding our crop mix beyond leafy greens, so follow us to see what tasty products will come next.

On a personal note, I feel fortunate and privileged to be part of this important venture. As a long-trained scientist, I get to perform research on key fundamental issues regarding plant growth, nutrition and safety. As an entrepreneur, I am happy to be close to the market, therefore having a real impact over people’s diet and food security. And as a responsible human and father of four, I am honoured to contribute towards protecting our planet for future generations.

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