2050 and Beyond: Food, Farming and Missions to Mars

Food can be a touchy subject. Culture, family, environment and lifestyle can all shape individual tastes and views on what makes food good or bad, enticing or unpalatable. Depending on who you speak to, food can be as simple as “fuel for the body,” a complicated combination of macro-nutrients, vitamins and minerals that support medal-winning athletic performance. For others, food is an art, the language of love and something to be celebrated and savoured with family and friends. However you view it, food is important. In many cultures, food has formed the basis for currency; in historical Japan for example, the samurai were paid in “koku” of rice, whilst Roman soldiers received part of their salary in the form of salt.

A future under threat

Today, with the global population set to top 9.7 billion people by 2050, worldwide food supplies and the very food production methods that we rely on are under threat. The majority of scientists, governments and consumers now recognise that we are in the grip of a global climate crisis, with extreme weather conditions creating even more challenging environments in which to grow the food needed to feed an increasing number of mouths. Farming intensification, with the extensive use of pesticides and fertilisers, is leading to land exhaustion as well as additional unintended consequences such as pollution and wider threats to health.

However, pests and disease still manage to devastate harvests around the world, and governments face an almost impossible trade-off as efforts to implement environmental protections often threaten farmers’ livelihoods. The growing population also needs to be housed, leading to increased calls to develop on previously protected greenbelt land.

Governments must perform a delicate balancing act, protecting their citizens and economies whilst increasing food production—without losing either the range or quality of food that consumers expect.

Unlocking the future of food

While some look to improve traditional farming methods with precision agricultural practices, technology and chemical science, others are looking at more creative, even revolutionary answers to the question of food provision. For example, lab-grown meat protein has captured headlines around the world. In more extreme scenarios, experts predict the rise of insect-based protein in Western diets, and superfoods like spirulina are seen as rich sources of nutrition (if perhaps an acquired taste).

However, there is an answer which lies somewhere between traditional, land-based agriculture and science-fiction extremes. At a fundamental level, in order to grow plants, you need a number of inputs: the seed (or plant “stock”) is affected by the combination of water, light, CO2 and nutrients. It is the relative proportions of each that can determine both the size and quality of any potential harvest. Therefore, by closely controlling every element of the formula, harvests can be boosted and we can exploit a wider variety of land for cultivation.

The importance of the plant scientist

As we consider the future of food production, the role of the plant scientist will become indispensable. Plant scientists study the interaction between a plant and the light, CO2, water and nutrient formula to determine the ideal conditions at every stage of its development, understanding that every type of crop may require a different “recipe” in order to maximise yields.

Take light for example. Natural sunlight spans a broad spectrum from ultraviolet (UV) to infrared wavelengths. Depending on the aspect of the farmer’s field, weather conditions and cloud cover, the time of day and month of the year, the number of useful photons from different light wavelengths landing on each plant and leaf will vary wildly. Nature is perfect, yet inefficient. By growing indoors, in either a greenhouse or controlled environment (CEA) facility, farmers can control the exact length of the growing day—extending it through the night with light from specially-tuned LED solutions.

By providing a specific light spectrum in addition to controlling the photoperiod (the length of time to which the plant is exposed to light), plant photomorphogenesis reactions can be controlled. Photomorphogenesis is a process by which plants produce phytochemicals in response to light signals. Phytochemicals present in vegetables, for instance, have an impact on people’s health (i.e. vitamins and anti-oxidants). Light quality is a factor in the biosynthesis, metabolism and accumulation of phytochemicals. This means light affects not only plant shape and growth, but also taste, aroma, nutrition, chemical entities and more.

Hans Spalholz, plant scientist at GE Current, a Daintree company, has spent his career understanding the impact of different light spectrums on plant morphology and is now helping Current develop and refine its specialist range of horticulture LED solutions to help indoor farmers achieve high-quality, commercially viable yields. He notes, “Even though greenhouses have been around for years, we’ve barely scratched the surface of their potential. Now we also have entrepreneurial growers exploring completely enclosed, shielded farms with no natural light so LED lighting recipes are even more crucial to the success or failure of these crops.”

Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to the impact of different light recipes on different crops, as the following table of popular indoor crops demonstrates.

Light Quality Tomato Response Leafy Green Response Cucumber Response Pepper Response Cannabis Response
Far-Red By lowering R:FR ratio, tomato seedling stem elongation was significantly increased (Chia and Kubota, 2010). Increased total biomass and leaf elongation (Stutte et al., 2009), decreased anthocyanin concentration (Stutte et al., 2009; Li and Kubota, 2009). Stimulated stem elongation and leaf expansion at lower R:FR (Shibuya et al., 2019). Increased stem dry weight and sugar content (Cu et al., 2009). Increased plant height and stem mass compared to red light alone (Brown et al., 1995).  
Red Use of supplemental red light increased tomato fruit yield by 14% (Lu et al., 2012) and chlorophyll content compared to the control treatments (Yang et al., 2018). Preharvest exposure reduced nitrate concentration (Wanlai et al., 2013; Ohasi-Kaneko et al., 2007; Samouliene et al., 2009; Samouliene et al., 2011). Increased phenolic (Li and Kubota, 2009; Zakauskas et al., 2011) and carotenoid (Brazaityte et al., 2014) concentration. Increased number of leaves, root and shoot growth (Marques da Silva et al., 2016). Increased number of leaves per plant and shoot length (Marques da Silva et al; 2016; Tang et al., 2019). Significantly increased yield, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (Hawley et al., 2018) and cannabidiol (CBD) (Magagnini et al., 2018) content in bud tissue.
Green Partial replacement of blue and red light with green increased plant growth in dense canopies, improving yield, chlorophyll and carotenoid concentration (Kaiser et al., 2019). High light intensity promotes growth compared to fluorescent lamps (Johkan et al., 2012), reduced nitrate concentration and increased ascorbic, tocopherol and anthocyanin content (Samuoliene et al., 2012). Increased growth, leaf area, fresh and dry weight (Brazaityte et al., 2009; Samuoliene et al., 2011; Novickovas et al., 2012) compared to HPS lamps. Increased leaf area (Samouliene et al., 2012), growth, yield phenolic and carotenoid content compared to HPS lamps (Guo et al., 2016). Significantly increased α-pinene, borneol (Hawley et al., 2018) and THC in bud tissue and antioxidant capacity compared to sunlight (Livadariu et al., 2018).
Blue Proved to be required for normal chloroplast structure (Lu et al., 2012) and reduced internode length (Menard et al., 2006; Nanya et al., 2012). Used alone, blue light tends to reduce yield and photosynthesis efficiency compared to red (Lu et al., 2012; Menard et al., 2006). Increased ascorbic acid (Ohashi-Kaneko et al., 2007), B-carotene (Lefsrud et al., 2008), anthocyanin (Ohashi-Kaneko et al., 2007) content, leaf expansion (Stutte et al., 2009) and root growth (Johkan et al., 2010). Decreased nitrate concentration (Ohashi- Kaneko et al., 2007). Increased leaf area, fresh and dry weight and photosynthetic pigments compared to natural light and HPS lamps (Samuoliene et al., 2012). Decreased hypocotyl elongation (Novickovas et al., 2012; Hernandez and Kubota, 2016). Suppressed plant growth and biomass formation compared to cool white fluorescent lamps when used in high amounts (Hoffmann et al., 2015). Increased polyphenols, flavonoids, fresh weight and protein compared to sunlight (Livadariu et al., 2018).
UV There was a significant increase in carotene concentration when plants were exposed to UV light before harvest (Li and Kubota, 2009). Increased anthocyanin concentration (Li and Kubota, 2009). Positive results controlling powdery mildew (Suthaparan et al., 2017).    

To allow growers enough flexibility to customise their crops, Current has adapted its product range to offer broader recipes that suit a grower’s desire to induce plant compactness or stretching.

color spectrum for growing food

Safer, cleaner, sustainable growing

As the challenge of food production increases, it will become increasingly important to educate potentially suspicious consumers about the quality of “factory-grown” crops. Consumer concerns regarding the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides have the potential to negatively impact the public perception of other non-traditional farming methods. However, in sophisticated controlled environments, insects can be excluded from the equation.

By bringing certain types of farming indoors, growers can maximise every aspect of their environment. Some of the most efficient CEA facilities boast of reducing water consumption by 90% versus traditional farming methods. Sterile growing media combined with hydroponics, aquaponics or aeroponics deliver a consistent, measurable nutrient mix to the plants’ roots that can then be recycled and reused. With the introduction of LED grow lights to replace or supplement the sun, growers can even think in three dimensions, stacking racks of leafy greens, herbs and other small plants—each with its own lighting—from floor to ceiling, potentially multiplying the growing surface area by a factor of ten or more.

When considering the value of vertical farms and CEA facilities to the future of food, the other important question lies in sustainability. However, when evaluating this, it’s crucial to take a broad view. While it’s true that indoor farms are more power-hungry than traditional farms, the yields that are generated by this intensive, measured approach are generally far higher. For example, a CEA facility could generate 12 harvests of herbs or leafy greens per year compared with perhaps two harvests from a traditional outdoor farm. The yields of these harvests will tend to be more uniform and predictable than with traditional methods, with growers more able to identify and address any issues throughout the growth cycle.

In addition, as renewable energy generation increases, and individual technologies like solar panels improve, growers can reduce their environmental impact by powering their facilities with clean, green energy either sourced from the Grid or captured locally. Some futuristic concepts even integrate vertical farms with office and living space, allowing the excess heat generated to create better living and working environments for the population whilst reducing the need for additional cooling in the farm.

Mission to Mars

Whether you take an optimistic or gloomy view of our planet’s future, Man’s quest to explore Space and potentially colonise new planets is no longer the realm of science fiction as the race to Mars becomes increasingly competitive. Moving to Mars, an exhibition hosted at the London Design Museum until 23rd February 2020 and with participation from NASA, the European Space Agency and SpaceX, shines a light on the challenges facing both permanent and temporary visitors to the red planet and showcases some of the progress and solutions created by designers, technologists and scientists in response.

Everything about Mars presents an extreme challenge to future human life. There is no earth in which to grow crops (Mars’ topsoil or “regolith” is high in chlorine, which would need to be removed), the solar radiation hitting the surface of Mars is far higher, yet the intensity of solar energy from light hitting surface of Mars is just over 50% that of Earth*. The composition of the atmosphere is also very different (composed of 95% CO2, it is not breathable for humans yet should be conducive to plant life) and even the gravitational field is different—approximately three times weaker than that of Earth.

Although reserves of ice have been found on Mars, potentially indicating usable sources of water, in order to successfully settle on Mars, colonists will need to bring almost everything they will need with them on their seven-month voyage from Earth, creating serious challenges in terms of materials, weight and volume. It’s also important to note that life on Mars will be a closed loop, with no concept of “away” to throw any detritus or waste.

As part of the exhibition, Current and partner Growstack have demonstrated how vertical farming, using hydroponics and optimised LED lighting, could be used to grow leafy greens such as spinach as well as herbs, peppers and strawberries. Assuming the settlers could construct pressurised enclosures or greenhouses to feed the plants the CO2 they need, along with heating and artificial light to mitigate the huge temperature fluctuations, this system could create ongoing, sustainable yields of highly nutritive crops, laying the foundations for longer-term settlements.

Andrew Nahum, curator of the exhibition, comments, “Everything you bring with you to Mars is precious,” so every piece of equipment must provide lasting value to the settlement in order to be considered necessary. Horticultural LED lighting technology has evolved to a point where it is extremely low power and reliable for 36,000+ hours, providing a sound, long-lasting framework for food production.

What will the future of food look like?

There is no single answer to the challenge of feeding our future population. While it’s clear that we need to embrace new technologies and techniques, the future of food will certainly not replace our rolling green hills with a grey landscape of dystopian food factories. A combination of traditional, “open-air” farming with greenhouses and controlled environment agriculture facilities, housing vertical farms that multiply the potential surface area of “farmable land”, is the best approach in order to optimise production of a wide range of crops, boosting nutritional value, appearance and availability throughout the year.

Given the availability of knowledge and technology, other possibilities for smaller-scale production become apparent. Ultimately, consumers could choose to augment their home greenhouse and allotment production with LED lighting and more advanced hydroponics. Additionally, we have already seen the potential for hyper-local micro-farms to be set up in restaurants and supermarkets, providing easy access for consumers and catering professionals to fresh, local produce throughout the year.

Whatever our future farming landscape looks like, it will be smarter, work harder and produce more than ever before, because it must.

Interested in learning more about how modern growing techniques can shape the future of food?

Download Current’s whitepaper now.


* https://www.firsttheseedfoundation.org/resource/tomatosphere/background/sunlight-mars-enough-light-mars-grow-tomatoes/

“At the Earth’s surface, with the Sun directly overhead at local noon (clear dry atmosphere), the solar irradiance is reduced to about 1000 W/m2 (1000 watts per square metre). This value is highly variable depending upon such things as the amount of dust and water vapor in the atmosphere. At local noon on Mars, with Sun directly overhead, the solar irradiance is 590W/m2 (590 watts per square metre).”