The threats posed to food production by unpredictable weather and climate change could be alleviated through a new project at the University of Plymouth.
Plant Factory Cornwall aims to use artificial lighting powered by solar energy to create the best possible conditions for fruit and vegetables to flourish.
Scientists believe it will reduce the stresses plant face in normal conditions, while improving global food security and reducing food miles.
It also aims to provide a particular boost to farmers and growers in Cornwall, helping them keep up with the year-round demands placed on them by suppliers and consumers.
The project, led by Professor of Plant Physiology Mick Fuller and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr Hail Rihan, aligns with commitments in the Government’s 25-year environment plan to ensure that food is produced sustainably and profitably.
It is being funded through Agri-Tech Cornwall, a three-year, £10 million initiative part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, with match-funding from Cornwall Council.
Professor Fuller, a renowned expert in the use of technology to improve crop production, said:
“The positive health benefits of fruit and vegetables are well known, as is the need to double food production in order to meet the demands of a growing population. But how do you do that when climate change, as we have seen this summer, means we cannot rely on having the right conditions for crops to thrive every year? That is where facilities like the Plant Factory come in.
“We can use artificial LED lighting to create the optimum conditions for individual species to flourish. But we can also explore ways to work with farmers and businesses in Cornwall and further afield, to enable them to meet the demands placed on them whatever the weather and reduce the need for food imports. Regional outputs of fruit, vegetables and salads could be boosted, along with quality aspects such as taste, texture and appearance. It would be a win-win situation.”
Sited on the University campus, the project is based within a multi-tier production unit constructed in partnership with SolaGrow, a company based just outside Penzance.
It uses solar panels to power LED lights, which can be individually programmed to automatically change lighting within the unit to give a precise light recipe for each species.
Scientists will monitor the effects on individual species, looking at ways to boost the plant’s photosynthetic processes, ensuring it absorbs and uses the maximum amount possible for physiological activity, rather than it going to waste.
They ultimately hope to create a blueprint for how best to maintain – or even enhance – the recognised nutritional properties of plants generated in natural environments.
A key element of the project is to work with growers and industry across Cornwall, to demonstrate the potential for this technology to have a positive impact on their business.
Professor Fuller added:
“In recent years, so many farmers have used redundant buildings or land to diversify away from farming. But this could offer them an affordable way to diversify back into crop production. It could also mean restaurants have a plant factory on their premises, so they can grow what they want all year round. There really is no limit to the size or scale of these facilities.”