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The importance and science behind increased nutritional value


Our growing population and the challenges of climate change are putting significant pressure on agriculture. As a complex matter, both the quantity and quality of food is in question, whether farmers and manufacturers can provide enough crops and of sufficient nutritional value for the tables of the future. While scientific analysis is divided about the presence of soil depletion and the decreasing nutritional quality of yield, growers have a space to invest in the means of controlled farming to tackle the underlying issues.


The Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations (FAO) calculated that agriculture in 2050 will need to produce “almost 50 percent more food, feed and biofuel than it did in 2012”. In addition, the changing weather conditions, certain farming practices exploiting natural resources, the increased greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and land degradation are all part of the global agricultural equation now — with the phenomenon of soil degradation and the higher level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere receiving more attention in the last couple of decades. 


In the end, however, one of the pressing questions is, how farmers, greenhouses and manufacturers can keep up with the rhythm of these changes and find solutions that bridge the gap between scientific discoveries and practicable application to suit their own needs.


From soil degradation to rising CO2 levels: where do we stand?


The industry frequently discusses several interlinked challenges these days: the extensive use of chemical fertilizers, how yield increase can cause decrease in vital nutrients and minerals, and discoveries claiming that over “the past 50 years the nutrient content of soil has been depleted by these intensive practices, thus making the nutrient content of the plants grown also less nutritious”. This is also known as the dilution effect.


A UK study from the British Food Journal, comparing the mineral content of 20 fruits and 20 vegetables grown in the 1930s and the 1980s, revealed the depletion of magnesium, iron, copper and potassium in carrots and tomatoes, and the decreasing amount of calcium, magnesium and sodium in fruits like raspberries and lemons. 


Studies that look at the historical changes of nutritional value often come to a similar conclusion. However, a 2017 study in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis takes a closer look at these apparent declines. The paper highlights that even though some high-yielding crop varieties can show lower mineral concentrations due to a dilution effect, changes are still “within natural variation ranges and are not nutritionally significant”, and the allegation of nutritional decline caused by soil mineral depletion is not actually founded. 

The atmosphere’s increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) level is also heavily studied. A 2015 research showed that under conditions of elevated levels of CO2, crops like wheat, rice or soybeans have an 8% lower concentration of minerals and proteins than normal, but higher carbohydrates.


The rise of CO2 levels is also often mentioned as an important factor helping plants to photosynthesise, but a zooplankton experiment showed that there is no fundamental correlation between greater volume and better quality — it is actually the opposite. Plant growth generated by more CO2 and thus photosynthesis can lead to packing in more carbohydrates such as glucose, and “at the expense of the other nutrients we depend on, like protein, iron and zinc”, concluded a Politico report.


One thing is certain: until more data is available on how currently widespread farming practices and climate change precisely affects the quality of plants, farmers and manufacturers need to clearly see the role they play in this global picture and the tools that can help them.


The role of farmers in achieving food security and improved nutrition


The United Nations’ (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes the goal to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. According to UN data, in 2019, nearly 750 million people, one in ten, were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity and an estimated 2 billion had no regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. 


The other end of the scale shows wealthiest countries like the United States, where people are shifting to fast food restaurants and a heavy consumption of packaged, processed and calorie-dense foods, which result in nutrition-poor diets and around 85% of Americans being undernourished.


While this is a complex issue, there’s a significant focus on agriculture in this subject. As Dr. Marco Marzano de Marinis put it as Secretary General for the World’s Farmers’ Organisation (WFO), “farmers are the first nutrient providers” and “from increasing the availability of total calories, to specific measures on nutrient deficiencies, agriculture can play an important role in addressing nutrition security”. Growers only need the right tools to achieve this.


Plant genetics and technology leading the way in increasing plants’ nutritional value


It is becoming more and more evident that the farming and manufacturing industry’s role in feeding the growing population has to be about both the quantity and quality of plant supply. To tackle this complex challenge and create and maintain a sustainable farming environment, growers and greenhouses can look into plant genetics and intelligence methods as well as state-of-the-art technologies like LED technologies that can provide spectrum compensation in indoor crop production.


Genetic engineering in plant breeding, for instance, is a highly promising area of sustainable farming, with techniques such as editing transcription genes called MYBs, influencing compounds which can lower cardiovascular disease or can act as vitamins.


Plant growth‐promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR) can not only promote plant growth but can allow crop production with reducing chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and may improve the nutrition quality of plants, as well. A microbial biotechnology study concluded that PGPR can “increase the sweetness, moisture content, levels of secondary metabolites with antioxidant properties and contents of minerals in fruits”, like grapes, apples, strawberries, blackberries, sweet cherries and tomatoes. 


Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) also seem promising both improving plant growth and enhancing the tolerance of plants to biotic and abiotic stresses, with evidence on positively affecting nutritional levels in glasshouse lettuces


Exogenous glycine — a free amino acid — supplementation can “increase the accumulation of health-promoting compounds and enhance antioxidant activity in hydroponically grown lettuce” — a system often used in greenhouses, providing greater plant density, higher yields and less water consumption.


Another room for investment is in hardware, to create and maintain a sustainable farming environment that is controlled and more predictable. There’s a growing significance on adjustable LED technologies that can provide a full lighting spectrum evenly, thus optimising yield quality and quantity


The right setup and combination of LED lights can ensure that plants absorb all the light, not exclusively blue or red for instance — instead of focusing on the enhancement of specific traits, this can maximise the plant’s full potential, including its nutritional value. LED technology used for inter-lighting supports the same goal as well, and without causing any damages in the plant.


For greenhouses and manufacturers though, the amount of new research and technologies are not only promising but can be overwhelming, as well. Facilities specializing in plant science in controlled farming environments, can be the link for them between scientific results and implementing practices for better crop production.

Controlled farming to bridge the gap for farmers between theory and implementation


While these technologies become accessible by the day, the average farmer or greenhouse still hasn’t maximised the potential of combining the right technology and plant intelligence. At the moment, for instance, only around 2% of greenhouse ornamental growers use LED systems for indoor crop production, while despite its higher initial price, it’s so energy-efficient that some farmers can save 75-80 percent over what would be the case with HPS (high pressure sodium) lighting.


It’s also worth considering that controlled farming provides a great environment to optimize a grower’s plant supply in every aspect, as the cumulated benefits of hardware, software and research and development can make the setup more predictable.


Just considering some of the plant growth and quality influencing factors is enough to see this: soil type, weather conditions, light levels, water availability, harvest times and exposure to herbivores are all contributing to plant production outcomes.


In some aromatic plants, for instance, the oil content can increase in the period from bud formation until full bloom, while plants like Mentha x piperita or Cymbopogon citratus accumulate a maximum of oil before blooming, and others’ oil quantity doesn’t change at all in their life cycle. This is another aspect that points to the advantages of controlled farming where the appropriate environmental factors and plants’ natural circadian rhythm can be simulated and perfected to ensure the best plant supply.


However, growers can lack an understanding of how new scientific methods and technological advancements should be implemented in daily business. This is where plant research facilities can help, by not only offering the most up-to-date know-how but the testing infrastructure for plant supply optimization and the means of bridging the gap between theory and implementation.


Such facilities can give answers to farmers’ specific challenges and provide tailored services around them — this ensures that growers and manufacturers won’t get lost when it comes to the practicable application and execution of research and technology.


Plant intelligence, whether in the form of biotechnology methods, digital data capture of environmental factors or analysis of crop nutrients, can help farmers understand the costs and conditions that are involved in growing a specific plant variant or building up a full plant portfolio. 


By using these solutions for predictable farming, growers and manufacturers can improve their crop production from plant growth through enhancing nutritional value to gaining more profit, ultimately promoting sustainable agriculture and helping to achieve food security and improved nutrition on a global scale.


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