This article by Magnus Linklater originally appeared in The Times on 28th November and is reproduced with their kind permission.
In a cluster of sheds on the outskirts of Dundee they are exploring the future of farming. There are four aluminium towers, with layer upon layer of open trays, each beneath a ceiling of LED lights shining down on rows of seedlings, young plants, and rapidly growing saplings.
The atmosphere is warm and damp; one might be in an equatorial jungle. Plants germinate in just a few days instead of weeks. This is photosynthesis at speed. On one tray are strawberries which have been putting out runners regularly for the past 18 months in a never-ending harvest. They face no winter frosts, storms or scavenging birds to interfere with their progress. Close by are basil plants, lettuce, and a tray of young trees, the forest of the future.
“They are enjoying a permanent holiday period,” says Professor Derek Stewart, director of the Advanced Plant Growth Centre at the James Hutton Institute. “Light is the key, and under the right light, growth is accelerated.” This is hi-tech agriculture at work, and as harsh economics, war in Europe, and the decline of immigrant labour threatens traditional farming, it is making a vital contribution to the way we produce food in the 21st century. The institute, which is working with Intelligent Growth Solutions, a crop research team, is at the cutting edge of research. Named after the great Scottish geologist, James Hutton, who, in the Enlightenment period of the 18th century, saw how the earth had transformed over time, it is in a sense carrying his work forward. Hutton developed his thesis for “a system of the habitable earth” in Principles of Knowledge, and wrote that “those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race”.
“They are enjoying a permanent holiday period”
This is what is happening at the institute’s Invergowrie centre. Science and engineering is taking nature’s work and giving it a helping hand, creating the ideal circumstances for rapid and sustained growth. With control of light, humidity, temperature and nutrients, productivity per sq m can be increased by 20 times, and, as more advanced systems are developed, by up to 50 times.
This is agri-science of the highest order, but it has less to do with genetic modification than with helping a naturally growing plant to do its job better. The biology of each crop is different, and by encouraging individual plant growth, the centre is developing its ultimate economic value, reflected in biomass, quality and nutritive value.
The institute is drawing scientists from across the world, like Tanveer Khan from India: “I came here because the work they are doing is so interesting and important. I’m intending to stay.”
Stewart mentions the use of sensors that can give early indications, before humans can notice it, of problems related to disease. “Things like too much or too little water, heat or cold, and nutrients,” he says. “The sensors can then self-correct the environment to get the plant back on track to high productivity.”
Not surprisingly world interest in the work has been high. At a time when climate change is altering the composition of soil from sub-Saharan Africa to the drowned plains of Pakistan, developing the resilience of plants to combat new conditions is vital. Thus, an Ethiopian farmer, struggling in drought conditions to manage a crop, could benefit from the work being done in Dundee to help him develop a more resilient plant.
As the Ukraine war has demonstrated only too forcibly, we cannot still rely on imported foods. Domestic production of fruit and vegetables may have doubled since 2000, but it has failed to match consumption, which is up by more than 130 per cent, meaning that imports have increased by 164 per cent.
Bringing production indoors is making self-sufficiency a reality, and it is a vital component of food security.
The other benefit lies in crop storage, what Stewart calls “the Cinderella of agricultural research”. Global food losses post-harvest are calculated at 13 per cent, and in developing countries can be as much as 30-40 per cent. “We are building six state-of-the-art crop storage research units, that are targeted for now on potato storage, but laterally will be used to look at global crops.”
In a nearby part of the Invergowrie complex, another Enlightenment figure is being cited in the name of saving the British potato. In 2022 the potato is suffering from the ravages of climate change. “[It] is under threat like never before,” says Lesley Torrance, director of science, “and we need to act soon unless we wish to see a demise of our potato industry.”
To combat that, the institute is proposing the urgent creation of the International Potato Innovation Centre and is already demonstrating what can be done to save different breeds of potato.
We walk through a shed where many varieties of potato are being studied. Here they have the Commonwealth collection, dating back to the 1930s, with more than 1,500 different types. They are looking to see how these can be used as the basis for new breeds to withstand temperature changes.
“If we do nothing, we won’t be producing potatoes in ten years’ time,” says Torrance. “We need to explore breeding technologies which can be harnessed to dramatically improve the speed and precision of producing new varieties which can withstand changes in climate, along with pests and disease,” she says.
“We need a root and branch rethink of how the whole British potato sector can address the climate and economic challenges ahead.”