Experts estimate that by the year 2050, the world’s population will swell from the current 7.3 billion to over 9.5 billion, with just nine countries accounting for half the growth. If accurate, conventional farming methods, which revolve around growing one or two crops annually, will be unable to sustain the increase in food demand. Now, some Australian scientists may have found a way to cost-effectively accelerate crop yields with a technique called speed breeding, inspired by NASA’s experiments to grow wheat in space.
The team of researchers from University of Queensland’s Jonn Innes Center and the University of Sydney began by planting a variety of crops such as wheat, barley, peas, chickpeas, and canola, in a modified, temperature-controlled glasshouse. The crops were then exposed to intense LED lights — beamed at specific frequencies up to 22 hours a day — to help accelerate photosynthesis.
The results, published in the journal Nature on January 1, 2018, exceeded all expectations. The scientists say they were able to grow six generations of wheat, chickpea, and barley plants and four generations of canola plants within a year. In contrast, conventional greenhouses yield just two to three, while outdoor farming produces just one yield a year. The researchers were also able to successfully speed breed peanuts, amaranth, and lentils and believe the technique will work for crops like sunflowers, peppers, and radishes as well.
Even more exciting is that when they compared the plant features, such as the number of tillers, or lateral branches, and grains per spike, they found the crops were much better quality than those grown under standard greenhouse conditions. "People said you may be able to cycle plants fast, but they will look tiny and insignificant, and only set a few seed," said study lead author Brande Wulff. "In fact, the new technology creates plants that look better and are healthier than those using standard conditions.”
Though the technology has thus far been primarily tested only in the lab, it is gradually making its way to industry. Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of US-based Dow Chemical Company, has successfully used speed breeding to grow a wheat variety that is more resistant to pre-harvest sprouting, a significant problem in Australia. The scientists believe the technique could also be useful in vertical farming systems, which are becoming increasingly popular. Wulff says, "I would like to think that in 10 years from now you, could walk into a field and point to plants whose attributes and traits were developed using this technology.”