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Innovation in Soil-Free Growing, 2 March, Sheffield

Agricultural science is a fast growing market, but faces significant global challenges in the form of:

  •  A rising population
  • Shortages of land, water and energy
  • Rapid development of emerging economies

To address these challenges, there will need to be significant improvements in the yield and sustainability of food crops. One such innovation is the uptake and development of soil free growing.

Why soil-free growing?

The British horticultural industry currently contributes £1.9 billion to the UK economy. While the majority of this production occurs in outdoors in fields, an increasing proportion of horticultural cultivation takes place under glass or poly-tunnel conditions.

While glasshouses and poly-tunnels afford extended growing periods and protection from extreme weather, they can become fall victim to outbreaks of pests and pathogens requiring expensive chemical and biological control.

Many of these pests and diseases are soil-borne which has driven growers to find alternative, soil-less, technologies such as hydroponics. Under hydroponic conditions, nutrients are provided to crops in solution from inorganic N and P sources as well as micronutrients.  Recycling of this nutrient solution can then increase efficiency and reduce fertiliser waste but in certain conditions, can lead to increased water use and abnormal root development.

Moreover, application of chemical treatments that enhance plant growth and resilience, such as defence activators and growth regulators, directly to the roots also provides a more efficient route of transfer than through topical application to leaves. 

Furthermore, beneficial microbes that help protect plants by enhancing their immune function and increasing their nutrient uptake efficiency are absent from hydroponic systems.

Alternatives to hydroponics have been developed in the form of mineral substrates and coir-based substrates that capture nutrients from liquid fertiliser and buffer water loss.  However, coir does not easily support populations of beneficial microbes and has a limited productive life span while mineral substrates have the capacity to harbour pathogens and are hard to sterilise. Together, this generates substantial amounts of waste, mainly disposed of via landfill. There is an urgent need to find sustainable novel, alternative solutions to these horticultural challenges, which may be found by combining innovations in plant biology with technological advances.


About the workshop

The aim of this workshop is to look at areas of innovation in soil free growing environments to identify areas where existing, novel and future methodologies can maximise the efficiency of soil free agriculture 

In particular, this event will focus on:

  •  Understanding the science of soil and identification of sustainable alternatives to encourage cross sector technology collaborations.
  •  Growing media and water uptake/utilisation
  • The requirements of soil free growing to address innovative growing environments, promoting research and industrial synergies
  •  Raise awareness for potential applications of soil free growing in upcoming funding calls

This event is jointly hosted by KTN and The University of Sheffield.


Find out more and register

What: Innovation in Soil-Free Growing

When: Wednesday, 2 March 2016 from 09:30 to 17:00

Where: The University of Sheffield

You can view the programme and register by clicking here.

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