Growing At The Wavelength Of Light

Image Credit: Dr Jason Wargent, Founder BioLumic

Every year from around mid October to mid November, Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world celebrate Diwali – the festival of lights. The celebrations mirror those held when, according to one popular Hindu myth, King Rama and his wife Sita returned home from exile, after having defeated the demon King Ravana. It is symbolic of good triumphing over evil, or light overcoming darkness. As spectacular as the light shows during the Festival are, they are not the reason the United Nations proclaimed 2015 the International Year of Light.

In December 2013, the United Nations General Assembly recognised the importance of raising global awareness about light–based technology. Appearing to have gotten the memo in advance, Jason Wargent and Warren Bebb, sit at the helm of New Zealand-based BioLumic, a company harnessing the power of light not to fight demons, but to give horticultural producers greater control over how their crops grow.

Spurred By The Hole In The Ozone

When news of the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer got out, the world went into a panic with many jostling for sunscreen of the highest Sun Protection Factor (SPF) value and others still attending high-level meetings that would result in the Montreal Protocol. This was back in the 1980s. Fast forward some years later and we find Jason, now a senior lecturer in Horticulture at Massey University and Chief Scientific Officer at BioLumic, busy at work investigating the presumed negative impact that increased levels of ultraviolet (UV) light was having on plants. To his surprise, however, he found that the increased UV levels had a number of favorable effects.

What is UV light? The light that comes from the sun is composed of a wide spectrum of energy, part of which is visible to the human eye, and part of which is not. The high-end, invisible parts of the spectrum is ultraviolet (UV).  Ultraviolet light can be perceived by some birds, insects – and as Jason would discover, plants.  UV light is extremely energy-intense and can be damaging to living tissue if overexposed.

"UV in itself is not very useful to plants, but they do have a protective reaction to UV: they produce fewer, thicker leaves, the waxy protective coating on the leaf surface increases, and sun screening compounds are produced in greater quantities. All this means, that done in the right way, UV light can produce a stronger type of plant." says Jason.

Building on this knowledge he sought ways to create a product through which these beneficial effects, which include improved growth and disease and pest resistance, could be enjoyed by horticulturalists. Thus, BioLumic was born.

Growing food from a recipe?

Now we're all familiar with using recipes to cook food, but to grow it?

BioLumic has developed a UV lighting technology called Smart Light Array technology, which manipulates the quantities of UV light at different wavelengths. Using what they call "light recipes", BioLumic's technology can accelerate or slow down certain growth characteristics in plants. This has numerous potential applications from bolstering disease resistance to enhancing flavour.

One focus of the technology has been to protect plants from transplantation shock – being moved from an indoor to an outdoor environment – by increasing the root growth and mass of seedlings.

“If you have the right recipe that can protect a plant from stress and maximise its growth productivity, you can use this technology to administer that recipe. There is a lot of breadth in the potential applications – the technology could be used to grow crops indoors or to ‘prime’ plants grown outdoors to grow better later in life,” says Jason.

Under the system, plant seedlings are treated with cyclic exposures to UV light for between four to seven days, while managing factors such as dosage and UV intensity depending on the type of plant.

Replacing chemicals with light

Various methods to increase crop yield and quality have almost always employed the use of chemical fertilisers. Even genetically modified crops are sprayed with liberal amounts of chemicals to ward off pests. The negative environmental impact of these chemical fertilisers cannot be ignored.

“The technology we are developing is game-changing, and it’s exciting to be part of something that could have a profoundly good impact on the industry – even though it is early days.

What we are looking at is potentially replacing – potentially, I say, because we haven’t been able to do it entirely – chemical treatment of plants with light treatment,” says Warren, CEO - BioLumic.

Meeting the world's demand for 'pretty food'

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to food, the beholder is pretty single-minded. In Kenya, a lot of the food grown for export lies rotting in warehouses across the country for failing to meet the cosmetic standards of the retail industry abroad. This not only generates huge losses for the farmers but for the environment as well. BioLumic's presupposition is that plants of the same kind exposed to the same light recipe will grow in uniformity.

"...if a certain percentage of their [farmer's] crop is undersized or under-spec, it’s wasted. If we are able to get homogenous specification across a whole crop then that’s of massive benefit, because it means a much higher proportion of that crop will be picked,” says Warren.

While genetic modification has gone some way in achieving the same result, the creators of BioLumic’s technology feel it suffers some major drawbacks. It is a slow process whose outcomes are often difficult to control. For instance, improving one trait in a crop such as disease resistance may come at the cost of another such as taste or colour.

You can't just turn on a UV light

Harnessing this light energy is not as simple as flicking a switch, nor is it cheap. To this end, BioLumic has secured patents on its devices and methods.

According to a PowerPoint presentation delivered by Warren at the Ag Innovation Showcase in the US, each Smart Light Array costs approximately USD 75,000 and each recipe is licensed at a fee of USD 45,000 every year. So far, the BioLumic team has been targeting large-scale horticulturalists projecting USD 12.6 Million in added revenue to those who adopt the technology.

Kenya earns approximately KES 83 billion (USD 813,725,490) from horticultural exports, which make up roughly 23% of the country’s GDP. With horticulture positioned as one of its greatest foreign exchange earners, this area is certainly ripe for investment. Adoption of such a technology would certainly go a long way in ensuring the positive growth of this agricultural sub-sector, which has been in decline since 2012.

Still In Its Early Stages

The outlook for the company is very good, however it’s still very much in the start-up phase. It has only recently moved its trials from New Zealand to the US. Trials, which have been very successful, showing an overall 17-41% increase in yields and over 70% increase in disease and pest resistance. The company is also expanding its trials to cover crop varieties other than leafy greens.

“We’ve been doing trials with maize and looking at soy, as well, massive crops that are used all through the global food chain. We’re seeing good early stage results there, replicating to a degree the results we are getting with seedlings, including better water-use efficiency, and hardiness. It’s early days, but that’s an application we’re focusing on because it could have huge impact,” says Warren.

Given the mercurial nature of the weather today as a result of climate change, this technology could also make the prospect of indoor farming more appealing by adding a UV component to existing lighting systems.

All things considered, BioLumic could well be what the world has been looking for in terms of a safe and sustainable way to feed a growing population. Just like King Rama and his wife Sita, the light could save us after all.