A project focused on reducing the pathogen contamination of seeds used in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) has been successfully completed. It will see a reduction in the use of any chemicals used in CEA and open the door to new plant breeding options focused on flavour outcomes over disease resistance.
London-based vertical farming technology and R&D company Vertical Future led the ‘Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) Heirloom Optimisation & Pathogen Control for Seeds’ or ‘CHOPS’ project alongside the NIAB and Zayndu Ltd. Research funding was provided by Innovate UK (the UK’s national innovation agency).
Chemical free seed pre-treatment
With the outer shell of a seed being the main source of disease introduction into CEA facilities, the CHOPS project used the Aurora cold-plasma technology developed by Zayndu as a new seed pre-treatment method. It uses only air and electricity to enhance growth of the germinating plant and to kill any fungi or bacteria on the surface of the seed. When applied at scale, this pre-treatment will remove the most significant sources of disease within CEA growing environments.
Conventional and organic agriculture are dependent on various agrochemicals to ensure they are free from disease and to satisfy production volume needs. This new seed treatment for CEA further increases health benefits for consumers and the environment in what is already a low-chemical food growing method.
Restoring ‘forgotten’ heirloom flavours and plant traits
For generations seeds have been developed for outdoor agriculture with breeding traits often optimised to reduce disease – key when growing crops in unpredictable outdoor environments. This has shifted focus from taste and nutrient density.
By removing the need to focus on breeding disease resistance, seeds for CEA environments can be optimised to improve taste and nutrition. The technology also allows older ‘heirloom’ varieties of seeds to be used in CEA – allowing forgotten flavours to be grown again. Using heirloom varieties, the CHOPS project reports yield increases of more than 600% compared to varieties used in the field today.
Jamie Burrows, Founder and CEO of Vertical Future, said: “As a result of the project, we have already grown crops, such as spinach, with much better flavours than their conventional alternatives. By using DNA sequencing, we can take our learnings to other crops by pinpointing genetic markers that positively impact taste and nutrition. The lessons from this project are even more meaningful, if diseases can be removed from seeds before they are planted without the need for chemicals. We could be looking at a new era of agriculture. This technology has the potential to end the need for excessive chemicals in crop production and usher in a healthier future for farming.
“The seed treatment has also proven to be a bio stimulant, providing enhanced germination and yield, illustrating the wider benefits of the technology by increasing production. NIAB worked with us to specify a high-health seed protocol. This support means the CEA sector has a better framework for seed testing and certification that provides for healthier, higher-yielding crops. We have already planned a follow-up to this project with NIAB, looking at soft fruit seed material and are evaluating the next phase of our R&D work with Zayndu.”
Dr Tom Wood, NIAB, Research Program Leader – Plant Pathology, said: “Application of cutting-edge indoor farming technologies to heirloom varieties, many of which have amazing flavour and nutritional properties offers a route back to the mainstream market for these pre-existing varieties. The natural combination of NIAB’s expertise in seed health with Zayndu’s cold plasma sterilisation technology and Vertical Future’s indoor farming techniques is perfect for bringing these varieties back to people’s plates in a sustainable way.
“Providing access to assured high-health status seed will help to improve grower’s confidence that they are not introducing potentially harmful organisms into their CEA systems, and this will help to prevent disease outbreaks”
Ralph Weir, Zayndu CEO concluded: “We’re standing plant breeding on its head. Instead of focusing on disease resistance, breeders can get back to thinking about flavour. Fusing Zayndu’s technology with Vertical Future’s ability to grow in pathogen-free CEA environments, along with NIAB’s seed and plant health expertise will put more flavour on the consumer’s plate – at a lower cost. An actual game-changer!”