The ability to grow the very best crops again and again is a nirvana in agricultural terms. Without the vagaries of climate and by adding the ability to understand how and why a crop has performed so well through continuous monitoring and data collection, the potential to produce premium crops is now a reality. The level of control over the growing parameters made possible with vertical farming is bringing a whole new level of understanding to plant science and providing opportunities to innovate and evolve consistent, healthy, reliable and abundant crops all year round.
To discuss this further, we talk to IGS Plant Scientist Dr Csaba Hornyik about how the precision technology and high levels of control within an indoor vertical farming environment are impacting on plant science and the potential this brings for food production.
– Insights with Csaba
Q) You are a plant scientist and have been working with IGS for over a year. Can you give us a glimpse through your career and tell us how you came to work in vertical farming?
I developed an interest in biology and chemistry at school and I specialised in these subjects at University in Hungary, particularly plant biology. I obtained a PhD in biology and plant biotechnology studying plant viruses and the RNA-based defense and counter-defense mechanisms in plants.
From there, I was awarded a long-term EU Marie Curie fellowship to come to Scotland. This allowed me to study plant-pathogen interaction in the SCRI, which was the precursor of what is now the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie, Dundee. Later, I focused on other crops, plant development, flowering time regulation and how RNA-processing can influence plant reproduction.
Most recently, my work has focused on potatoes and I established a research area in the Hutton focusing on RNA-directed gene regulation affecting potato quality and quantity traits. I was facilitator of the Potato@Hutton group which undertakes very important research work focusing on potatoes. This project was so interesting and helped connect the understanding between agriculture, consumers and the science.
I heard about the fantastic opportunity at IGS Limited applying plant science to the optimisation of crop growth and I was lucky to be chosen for the job, so here I am! I think it is a great opportunity and exciting area to move forward vertical farming to practice science and identify opportunities to enhance our growing abilities.
Q) Why do the vertical farming and controlled environment agriculture sectors need to incorporate plant science?
Vertical farming is a dynamically developing area and many things are not really known. These systems are completely different compared to traditional agriculture or even glasshouse-based production.
I am keen to use all my knowledge of plant biology to create the best possible environment and this could facilitate and speed up the development of hardware and software in this setting. We know how plants behave under normal conditions, but in a vertical farm we can apply the best for the crops to see how they behave and fine tune their growth optimisation accordingly.
Q) The technology offers such precise control within the environment – water, light, temperature, CO2 – how does this change your approach to scientific observation and development?
The controlled environment allows me to speed up the optimisation process because of the stable environment. I can run trials and experiments, with control areas and this provides me with the data to make decisions which allow us to fine tune the system. This level of control was completely unimaginable many years ago. It is absolutely a dream for any researcher and can hugely accelerate the science. Automation also presents big advantages for the science I do, and it strongly supports my decision-making and the development of our recipes.
"Automation presents big advantages for the science I do, and it strongly supports my decision-making and the development of our recipes."
Q) In an industry which is still quite new, does this offer a lot more opportunity for experimentation and trial? And does it open more opportunity for collaboration?
Definitely, yes – it does offer more opportunity. The level of control is so exciting and the variabilities are endless in our system, so it is challenging to find the best settings. I set up basic trials for proof-of-concept studies of different crops and this is then followed by much more detailed experiments. I have to work closely with our customers, understanding their needs, what they want, and I then set up the trials accordingly.
Total controlled environment agriculture is a new area where we have to do many things for optimisation. Many people including scientists, farmers, industry players are interested in this new technology, so the opportunity for collaboration is great. There are really high levels of discussion and interaction among us.
"Many people including scientists, farmers, industry players are interested in this new technology, so the opportunity for collaboration is great."
Q) Which type of crops have been the most interesting for you to trial or grow? What are your biggest successes?
I love all the crops: all of them are different! This is why this job is always interesting but challenging. Very selfishly, often the crops I like best are those I like eating or the ones I know have good potential for health. Of the leafy greens we grow, I especially like kale and dill. I also love flowers, so recent trials we have conducted growing edible flowers have been exciting. But optimising the growth of plants like strawberries and chillies is fun also!
It’s difficult to tell what my biggest success so far would be. It depends entirely on the customers and their goals. My greatest successes have been where I’ve managed to optimise growth recipes in a way that reduces our energy consumption while keeping quality and yield – contributing to the sustainability of our vertical farming system.
"My greatest successes have been where I’ve managed to optimise growth recipes in a way that reduces our energy consumption while keeping quality and yield – contributing to the sustainability of our vertical farming system."
Q) Equally, can you tell us what some of the challenges that you face include?
As vertical farming needs a lot of energy, I need to grow crops with as low energy input as we can. Every crop is different, and their needs are different.
We do not have insects in our environment, so artificial pollination has to be performed for berry or fruit production (strawberries are particularly difficult!) and this can present some challenges.
Data collection, storage and analysis is also very different, but exciting, in an indoor vertical farming environment compared to other scientific approaches.
Q) How is an emphasis on plant science allowing IGS to diversify its growing approach for customers and its own trials? (e.g. propagation, new crops etc)
IGS recognised that without taking a scientific approach, the continued development of the system would be difficult. In order to make reasonably quick progress on developing new crops you need plant science to understand and provide the best environment for growth. In this case, a systematic approach is better and more conclusive to find the best settings.
Every new trial must be properly planned and executed in order to supply useable data for further development or just the simple growth of crops. There are always lots of variables, and many alternative growing methods exist for certain crops. It’s always a challenge finding out which suits our environment best, for example strawberry propagule production or chilli fruit production.
Crucially, the physical arrangement has to be right. Each crop has certain space requirements and that is absolutely essential to ensure our Growth Towers are productive and cost-effective. When I start growing from seed, I need to think about the spacing and maximise this both horizontally and vertically, combining it with the most effective power management.
"I need to think about the spacing and maximise this both horizontally and vertically, combining it with the most effective power management."enviro
Q) What potential do you think vertical farming and CEA will have on the way we understand, grow and produce plants?
There is really big potential here. CEA both extends and complements traditional farming beyond its current limitations.
It gives opportunities for us to reduce the carbon footprint of plant production and transfer by growing close to the point of consumption. It also reduces chemical use and delivers fresh, healthy, produce that can contribute to improving the overall health of our society. Crucially, CEA requires minimal water to produce crops. I think this will be the key aspect for vertical farming in the future.
By growing in local communities, we can also create jobs for local people.
Q) Do you think there will be an increasing role for scientists and science-based skills in new agricultural approaches, such as vertical farming? If so, what type of skills and background will be relevant?
Yes, I do think this will increase. Scientific knowledge must complement hardware and software development, but we have to produce healthy food and that is our ultimate goal. We also particularly need microbiologists as they are very important to understand algae formation, the microbiome of the system and how we can keep high health in the towers for safe food production.
Plant scientists, microbiologists and data analysts will be key, and going forward will support the development of AI. We need to be able to collect, collate and analyse data. We also absolutely need people who understand the composition of nutrients and fertilisers for plants, AI developers (software developers), and specialists in fertilisers.
Q) What excites you most about the future of this sector?
I think everybody knows that this is a new industry but we are expanding heavily. This has been especially noticeable as a result of the pandemic: food security has become a key issue globally. There is a real focus on producing healthy food locally. I really believe that this technology can provide a better life for people and that it can complement traditional agriculture.
Healthier and more affordable plant production will be a key in the future. It is important to keep people healthy and that requires providing good quality, nutritious food sources.
One of the key factors in achieving this is reducing chemical use in food production, and this will have a much more positive impact on our society. Vertical farming allows this: because it uses clean room technology, you don’t have to use chemicals. This could have an incredibly positive impact on our environment.
The most important thing could be the water issue. Saving water is a serious problem for many societies and in vertical farming we use a tiny amount of water and recycle everything that doesn’t leave the farm inside the plants. This will be absolutely fundamental for the future.