The pandemic and poor harvests have exposed the weaknesses in the global food system, but as the war in Ukraine continues, long-term damage is now on the cards. As grain supplies are impacted, as well as disruption to natural gas and fertiliser markets, soaring prices and a lack of bread loaves are just the tip of the iceberg – increased hunger, disrupted markets, changed land and water use, and potentially more release of carbon into the atmosphere now pose much bigger threats. The need to find an alternative way to feed the world is becoming ever more urgent – can indoor vertical farming and AgTech become the saviour of the food supply chain?
The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that combined, Russia and Ukraine exports represent 12 percent of all the food calories traded in the world, with the two countries accounting for almost a third of global wheat exports. There is no current contingency plan to bridge what amounts to a colossal gap in international food production.
“This crisis is beyond the normal ability to shuffle supplies around,” says Scott Irwin, an agricultural economist and professor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We’ve exploded that system, and the cost is going to be extreme economic pain.”
To make matters worse, the United Nations’ World Food Programme, perhaps the largest distributor of food aid to struggling economies, buys more than half of the grain it distributes from Ukraine and Russia.
Currently, wheat is the main source of plant protein and is the second most-produced crop globally. Wheat was first likely bred and domesticated 10,000 years ago in the fertile crescent of Western Asia. Since then it has been one of the most important staple crops around the world. Covid, labour shortages due to Brexit, climate change, increasing global demand and now the conflict in Eastern Europe have all disrupted global supply, but soil quality and weather also influences yield. What all this equates to is an urgent need to find an alternative method of farming to reduce reliance on the way this vital global commodity is sourced. While indoor vertical farming is predominantly used to grow increasing varieties of leafy greens, salad and fruit crops, can this sustainable growing method change the world’s ability to grow wheat? And while there are a few obstacles to overcome in bringing huge wheat crop yields to fruition, in short, the answer is yes.
True, we may have a little further to go until indoor wheat farming becomes the norm, but the recent troubles may well have accelerated this journey.
So far, there have been some promising signs. A recent study modelled wheat growth in a 10-layer, indoor vertical farm. The study predicted that an indoor vertical farm could potentially produce an enormous annual hay yield of 1,940 tonnes – up to 600 times greater per hectare than current farming methods. And that’s not all – the study further predicted in a 100-layer farm there is the opportunity to produce a staggering 19,400 tonnes of hay per year.
Light Science Technologies’ very own Plant Scientist Laura Briers is in the final year of a PhD in Plant Physiology at the University Nottingham specialising in wheat photosynthesis, which has been identified as a key target for improving future wheat yields and is an important research area. LST is harnessing her expertise in this area to help drive the company’s continuous efforts to improve plant performance for sustainable, indoor farming across vertical farming, glasshouses and polytunnels.
And more advanced research carried out at the Technical University of Munich in Weihenstephan has also revealed the potential for wheat crops to be grown in desert regions and even space (yes, you read it correctly). In the meantime, what this presents for the industry on Planet Earth at least, is a mouth-watering opportunity to not just establish a greater foothold in sustainable food production and food security for the long-term, but move towards a decentralised, localised food system through harnessing innovation in AgTech.