Farming Up: Modern Biology Will Maximize the Potential of Vertical Controlled-Environment Agriculture

Written by: John Purcell Vice President, Global R&D Lead at Monsanto
Jun 25, 2018 10:00 AM ET
Campaign: Innovation

Farming Up: Modern Biology Will Maximize the Potential of Vertical Controlled-E…

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a workshop on Vertical Farming as a pre-summit event at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in San Francisco. I had the pleasure of joining key leaders from this promising new industry to discuss the role that plant science and technological innovations may play in optimizing yields and delivering valuable products. My message was simple: Partnerships between seed companies and vertical controlled-environment producers, and the application of modern biology tools to create custom germplasm, will be key to enabling these new and exciting production systems, just as they are in today’s most commonly-used fruit and vegetable production systems. 

Partnerships with Producers: It is exciting to think of the potential insights that will be gained through collaborative trialing programs between seed companies and vertical farmers. This is the mainstay of how successful varieties are currently identified for today’s popular production methods, such as open-field and protected culture. One limitation of open-field production is the ability to produce consistent quality produce year-round, as required by many food retailers. This is especially important since production areas often must rotate across different geographical regions with multiple planting windows and diverse growing conditions. Protected culture production eliminates some of the climatic variation, and controlled-environment production methods like vertical farming take it even a step further. I am confident that this new level of control will allow seed companies to identify some great varieties with excellent consumer appeal.

Genetic Variation is Key: The phenomenal range of variation in vegetable crops never ceases to amaze me. But why is this genetic diversity so important? For starters, this diversity is necessary to support today’s marketplace demands for new products. But even more importantly, vegetable breeders depend on this foundation of diversity for future variety development, because not every seed reaches its full potential in a controlled environment. In fact, the broad, international diversity in germplasm collections is one of the assets that controlled-environment producers can assess in determining which varieties work best for them. 

Unlocking Potential with Molecular Markers: Marker-assisted breeding is another important tool that will bring value to controlled-environment production systems like vertical farming. In the past, breeders typically had to wait a full season for experimental crops to mature before they could assess the quality of the produce and select the top contenders for continued development. To improve a single crop, they had to play botanical matchmaker for many years, laboriously weeding out unwanted traits without losing desirable ones. But now, we have the ability to identify the genes underlying those traits thanks to a much more efficient and precise process known as marker-assisted breeding. Once scientists establish genetic “markers” for different traits—such as flavor and firmness—they can analyze DNA extracted from the seeds or the leaves of young plants and reveal ideal candidates for breeding experiments long before harvest time. This accelerates the breeding process, shortening the time to market for new varieties. Continuous nursery programs allow the favorable genetic elements to be introgressed rapidly into elite germplasm, thus also accelerating speed to market. For open-field production, identifying disease-resistance traits is a major focus of marker programs. Controlled environments allow one to control many diseases more effectively than in open-field production, so this will allow a robust, high-throughput marker program to now be applied to other traits specific to controlled-environment conditions. Plant architecture, time to maturity, and plant responses to artificial light are all areas upon which molecular markers and trait discovery efforts could be focused.

Gene Editing Could Enable More Solutions: New biological tools like gene editing could potentially generate many more vertical farming solutions. Gene editing tools allow us to look at DNA in the way that an architect would look at blueprints for a house, and find the specific stretch of DNA within a plant’s blueprint that is responsible for important functions like susceptibility to disease or flavor. They also allow us to make targeted changes to a plant’s blueprint to improve it – for example, by enabling a desired characteristic, such as positive response to specific growing conditions, or deactivating an unfavorable characteristic, such as sensitivity to a disease. Another advantage of gene editing is that it may allow us to break genetic linkages between genes conferring positive traits (like enhanced flavor) with less desirable traits (like reduced yield), generating plant varieties with the most desirable combinations of traits.

Plant science has had a profound impact on the ability of open-field and protected-culture farmers to produce bountiful, tasty, nutritious fruits and vegetables for consumers around the world. Now, vertical farming has the potential to be another valuable tool that helps growers address future food security challenges, as well as meet changing consumer preference demands – but vertical farm operators will need improved seed genetics to maximize that potential. I look forward to seeing how collaborations between seed companies and controlled-environment producers lead to the development of valuable new products, bringing delicious new varieties to my dinner table and driving the growth of this exciting new segment of the produce industry.