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Chavan, S.; Chen, Z.; Ghannoum, O.; Cazzonelli, C.; Tissue, D.T. Current Technologies and Target Crops in Australia. Encyclopedia. Available online: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/24085 (accessed on 18 June 2024).
Chavan S, Chen Z, Ghannoum O, Cazzonelli C, Tissue DT. Current Technologies and Target Crops in Australia. Encyclopedia. Available at: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/24085. Accessed June 18, 2024.
Chavan, Sachin, Zhong-Hua Chen, Oula Ghannoum, Chris Cazzonelli, David T. Tissue. "Current Technologies and Target Crops in Australia" Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/24085 (accessed June 18, 2024).
Chavan, S., Chen, Z., Ghannoum, O., Cazzonelli, C., & Tissue, D.T. (2022, June 16). Current Technologies and Target Crops in Australia. In Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/24085
Chavan, Sachin, et al. "Current Technologies and Target Crops in Australia." Encyclopedia. Web. 16 June, 2022.
Current Technologies and Target Crops in Australia
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Indoor farm facilities are broadly categorised into the following three levels of technological advancement: low-, medium- and high-tech with corresponding challenges that require innovative solutions. Furthermore, limitations on indoor plant growth and protected cropping systems (e.g., high energy costs) have restricted the use of indoor agriculture to relatively few, high value crops. Hence, there is a need to develop new crop cultivars suitable for indoor agriculture that may differ from those required for open field production. In addition, protected cropping requires high start-up costs, expensive skilled labour, high energy consumption, and significant pest and disease management and quality control. Overall, protected cropping offers promising solutions for food security, while reducing the carbon footprint of food production. However, for indoor cropping production to have a substantial positive impact on global food security and nutritional security, the economical production of diverse crops will be essential. 

protected cropping vertical farm soil-less culture crop performance indoor agriculture food security resource sustainability

1. Current Techniques and Technologies in Protected Cropping

In 2019, the total land area devoted to protected cropping—which, broadly, involves growing crops under all types of covering—was estimated at 5,630,000 hectares (ha) globally [1]. The total area of vegetables and herbs grown in greenhouses (permanent structures) has been estimated to be about 500,000 ha globally, with 10% of these crops grown in glasshouses and 90% in plastic greenhouses [2][3]. Australia’s greenhouse area is estimated to be around 1300 ha, with high-tech greenhouses (around 14 individual businesses, each occupying less than 5 ha) accounting for 17% of this area, and low-tech/medium-tech greenhouses accounting for 83% [4]. Globally, plastic greenhouses and glasshouses constitute around 80% and 20%, respectively, of the total greenhouses produced [3].
Protected cropping is the fastest-growing food-producing sector in Australia, valued at around $1.5 billion per annum at the farm gate in 2017. It is estimated that around 30% of all Australian farmers grow crops in some form of protected cropping system, and that crops grown under cover comprise around 20% of the total value of vegetable and flower production [5]. In Australia, the estimated greenhouse vegetable production area is highest for South Australia (580 ha), followed by New South Wales (500 ha) and Victoria (200 ha), while Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania account for <50 ha each [4].

1.1. New Technologies for Low-Tech Poly-Tunnels

Low-tech greenhouse facilities that contribute the most to protected cropping have several limitations which require technological solutions to help in their transition into profitable medium- or high-tech facilities producing high quality crops with minimal resources. Low-tech poly-tunnels account for 80–90% of the greenhouse crop production globally [6] and in Australia [4]. Considering the large proportion of low-tech poly-tunnels in protected cropping and their low levels of climate, fertigation and pest control, it is important to address the associated challenges in order to increase the production and economic returns to the growers.
The low-tech level encompasses various types of poly-tunnels which can range from makeshift metal structures with plastic coverings to permanent purpose-built structures. Generally, they are not controlled beyond the ability to lift the plastic covering when it becomes too hot or cloudy outside. These plastic covers protect the crop from hail, rain and cold weather and extend the growing season to some extent. These cheap structures offer a viable return for investment in vegetable crops such as lettuce, beans, tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage and zucchini. Farming in these poly-tunnels is performed in the soil, whilst more advanced operations can use large pots and drip-irrigation for tomatoes, blueberries, eggplants or peppers. However, while low-tech protected cropping makes sense for small growers, such techniques suffer from several shortcomings. Their lack of environmental control affects the consistency of the size and quality of the product and therefore reduces the market access of these products for demanding customers such as supermarkets and restaurants. Given that the crop is generally planted in the soil, these farmers are also faced with numerous pest and soil-borne diseases (e.g., persistent nematode infestation). Industry and research partners require innovations in providing solutions across facility design and crop management systems as well as smart trading systems to export produce and maintain a constant supply chain. Incentives and support from funding bodies and technological innovations (e.g., biological control, partial automation in irrigation and temperature control) from universities and companies could help growers transition to more advanced technological cropping systems.

1.2. Upgrading Medium-Tech Greenhouses with Innovations and New Technologies

Medium-tech protected cropping is a broad category encompassing controlled-environment greenhouses and glasshouses. This part of the protected-cropping sector requires significant technological upgrades if it is to compete with large-scale food production in farms deploying low-tech poly-tunnels and high-quality produce from high-tech greenhouses. The environmental control in medium-tech greenhouses is usually partial or intensive and the temperature of some greenhouses can be controlled by manually opening the roof, while more advanced facilities have cooling and heating units. The use of solar panels and smart films is being investigated to reduce energy cost and carbon footprints in medium-tech greenhouses [7][8][9].
While many greenhouses are still made of PVC or glass cladding, smart films can be applied to these structures or can be incorporated into greenhouse design to increase energy efficiency. Generally, high-end greenhouses use growing media such as Rockwool blocks with carefully calibrated liquid fertiliser receipts at different growth stages to maximise crop yields. CO2 fertilisation is sometimes used in medium-tech greenhouse to boost yield and quality. The medium-tech protected cropping sector will benefit from industry-university partnerships to generate advanced scientific and technological solutions, including new crop genotypes with high yield and quality, integrated pest management, fully automated fertigation and greenhouse climate control, and robotic assistance in crop management and harvest.

1.3. Innovations of Science and Technology for High-Tech Greenhouses

High-tech glasshouses can incorporate the latest technological advances in crop physiology, fertigation, recycling, and lighting. In large-scale commercial greenhouses, for instance, ‘smart glass’ technology, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and supplemental lighting, such as LED panels, can be used to improve crop quality and yields. Producers are also increasingly automating critical and/or labour-intensive areas such as crop monitoring, pollination, and harvesting.
The development of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (MI) has opened new dimensions for high-tech greenhouses [10][11][12][13][14]. AI is a set of computer-encoded rules and statistical models trained to discern patterns in big data and perform tasks generally associated with human intelligence. AI used in image recognition is being used to monitor crop health and recognise signs of disease, enabling quicker, better-informed decision making for crop management and harvesting—which, these days, can be accomplished by robot arms rather than human labour. Internet-of-Things (IoT) offers solutions for automation that can be customized specifically for greenhouse applications [15]. Thus, AI and IoT can contribute significantly in the area of modern agriculture by controlling and automating farming activities [16].
Research and development in the field of agricultural robots has grown significantly in the past decade [17][18][19]. An autonomous crop harvesting system for capsicum that approaches commercial viability was demonstrated with a harvesting success rate of 76.5% [17][20] in Australia. Prototypes of robots for de-leafing tomato plants, harvesting capsicum (bell peppers) and pollinating tomato crops [20][21] have been developed in Europe and Israel, and could be commercialised in the near future.
Moreover, labour-management software systems for large-scale high-tech greenhouses will optimise the efficiency of workers significantly, improving the economic prospects of these businesses. The IT and engineering revolution will continue to empower protected cropping and indoor farming, allowing growers to monitor and manage their crops from computers and mobile devices, which can even be used to make critical farming and market decisions. High-tech greenhouses have the highest potential to benefit the Australia protected cropping sector, hence ongoing research and innovation into these facilities is likely to translate to time and money well invested.

1.4. Developing Vertical Farms for Future Needs

In recent years, a rapid development in indoor ‘vertical farming’ across the world has been witnessed, especially in countries with large populations and insufficient land [22][23]. Vertical farming represents USD 6 billion in value but remains a small fraction of the multi-trillion-dollar global agricultural market [24]. There are various iterations of vertical farming but all of them use vertically stacked soil-less or hydroponic growing shelves in a fully enclosed and controlled environment, which allows for a high degree of automation, control and consistency [25]. However, vertical farming remains limited to high-value and short-life-cycle crops due to the high energy costs despite offering unmatched productivity per square metre and high levels of water and nutrient efficiency.
The technological dimension of vertical farming—and in particular, the advent of ‘smart’ glasshouses—is likely to attract growers eager to work with emerging computer and big-data technologies such as AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) [26]. Currently, all forms of indoor farming are energy- and labour-intensive, although there is scope for great advancement in both automation and energy-efficiency technologies. Already, the most advanced forms of indoor agriculture supply their own energy on site and are independent of the general utility grid. Rooftop gardens can range from simple designs on top of city buildings to the corporate rooftop enterprises on municipality buildings in New York and Paris. Indoor vertical farming has a bright future, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and is well positioned to increase its share of the global food market, due to its highly efficient production system, reductions in supply chain and logistics costs, potential for automation (minimising handling) and easy access to both labour and consumers.

2. Target Crops in Protected Cropping

Currently, crops suitable for indoor agriculture are limited in number due to the crop limitations for indoor growth as well as protected cropping limitations such as high energy cost (for illumination, heating, cooling and running various automated systems) which allows specific high value crops [27][28][29]. However, the economical production of a diverse array of edible crops is essential if protected cropping is to have a significant impact on global food security [30][31][32]. Crop cultivars for protected vegetable cultivation differ significantly from those of open field production that are bred for tolerance of a wide range of environmental conditions, which is not necessarily required in protected cropping. The development of suitable cultivars will require the optimisation of several traits (such as self-pollination, indeterminate growth, robust roots) that differ from the traits viewed as desirable in outdoor crops).
Currently, the fruits and vegetables best adapted for indoor farming include:
  • Those that grow on vines or bushes (tomato, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, cucumber, capsicum, grape, kiwifruit);
  • High-value specialist crops (hops, vanilla, saffron, coffee);
  • Medicinal and cosmetic crops (seaweed, Echinacea);
  • Small trees (cherries, chocolate, mango, almonds) are other viable options [31].
In the following sections, the researchers discuss current existing crops and the development of new cultivars for indoor agriculture in more detail.

2.1. Existing Crops Grown in Low, Medium and High-Tech Facilities

Low- and medium-technology protected-cropping systems produce mainly tomato, cucumber, zucchini, capsicum, eggplant, lettuce, Asian greens and herbs. In terms of area, quantity of fruit produced and number of businesses, tomato is the most important horticultural vegetable crop produced in greenhouses, followed by capsicum and lettuce [2][33]. In Australia, the development of large-scale controlled-environment facilities has been limited primarily to those constructed for growing tomatoes [2]. The estimated GVP of fruits, vegetables and flowers for 2017, in the field and in protected-cropping facilities, demonstrates the dominance of tomato in the Australian protected-cropping sector.
The overall estimated GVP for 2017 with regard to the field and under-cover production of horticultural crops was highest for tomato (24%), followed by strawberry (17%), summer fruits (13%), flowers (9%), blueberry (7%), cucumber (7%) and capsicum (6%), with Asian vegetables, herbs, eggplant, cherry and berries each accounting for less than 6% (Figure 1A).
Figure 1. Estimated gross value of production (GVP) for overall combined field and protected-cropping vegetable production (A) and imputed GVP of crops cultivated under protected cropping in 2017 (B) for Australia.
Among these, the GVP of crops grown in protected-cropping systems was highest for tomato (40%), which led by a significant margin relative to other crops including flowers (11%), strawberry (10%), summer fruits (8%) and berries (8%), with each of the remaining crops accounting for less than 5% (Figure 1B). However, the Australian domestic market has been saturated by greenhouse tomatoes, which leaves the protected cropping industry with the following two options: increase sales of these crops in international markets; and/or to encourage some of the country’s existing greenhouse growers to transition to the production of other high-value crops. The proportion of individual crops cultivated under protection was highest for berries (85%) and tomato (80%), followed by flowers (60%), cucumber (50%), cherry and Asian vegetables (each 40%), strawberry and summer fruits (each 30%), blueberry and herbs (each 25%), and finally, capsicum and eggplant, at 20% each [4]. Currently, energy- and labour-intensive indoor farming is restricted to high-value crops that can be produced in the short term with a low energy input [34][35]. In plant ‘factories’, the predominant crops grown currently are leafy greens and herbs, due to these crops’ short growing periods (because fruits and seeds are not required) and high value [36], the fact that such crops require relatively less light for photosynthesis [37] and because most of the plant biomass produced can be harvested [34][38]. There is great potential to improve the yields and quality of crops grown in urban farms [30].

2.2. Industry Survey: Where Do Participants’ Interests Lie?

The identification of key research topics is essential to improve the efficiency of public and privately funded research for the future of protected cropping. For instance, the Future Food Systems Co-operative Research Centre (FFSCRC), initiated by New South Wales Farmers Association (NSW Farmers), University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Food Innovation Australia Ltd. (FIAL), consists of a consortium of more than 60 founding industry, government and research participants. Its research and capability programs aim to support participants in optimising the productivity of regional and peri-urban food systems, taking new products from prototype to market and implementing rapid, provenance-protected supply chains from farm to consumer. To that end, the FFSRC provides a collaborative research environment aimed at improving protected cropping in order to boost the capacity to export top-quality horticultural produce and help Australia become a leader in science and technology for the protected-cropping sector.
The participants were surveyed to identify target crops for indoor agriculture. Among the participants who identified target crops, interest in fresh vegetables (29%) was greatest, followed by interest in fruit crops (22%); medicinal cannabis, other medicinal herbs and specialised crops (13%); native/indigenous species (10%); mushrooms/fungi (10%); and leafy greens (3%) (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Classification of the crops produced currently by FFSCRC participants in protected cropping facilities and hence, of participants’ likely interest in finding solutions for growing these crops more productively under cover.
The survey was based on information about the participants available online; acquiring more detailed information will be crucial to understanding and meeting the specific requirements of the participants.

2.3. Breeding New Cultivars for Controlled-Environment Facilities

Breeding technologies available for the improvement of vegetable and other crop plants are advancing rapidly [39]. In protected cropping, a dynamic economic sector with rapid changes in market trends and consumer preferences, choosing the right cultivar is critical [32][40]. There are many studies that assess adapting high-value crops such as tomato and eggplant for greenhouse production [41][42]. New breeding technologies [39] have facilitated the development of new cultivars with desired traits, and some companies have started designing plants for growth in controlled environments under LED lights [6]. However, cultivars have been bred mostly to maximise yield under highly variable field conditions [34]. Crop traits such as tolerance to drought, heat and frost—which are desirable in field-grown crops but typically carry yield penalties—are generally not needed in indoor agriculture.
Key traits that can be targeted for adapting higher-value crops to indoor agriculture include short life cycles, continuous flowering, a low root-to-shoot ratio, improved performance under low photosynthetic-energy input, and desirable consumer traits including taste, colour, texture and specific nutrient content [30][31]. Additionally, breeding specifically for higher quality will produce highly desirable products with high market value. Light spectrum, temperature, humidity and nutrient supply can be managed so as to alter the accumulation of target compounds in leaves and fruits [43][44] and increase the nutritional value of crops, including proteins (quantity and quality), vitamins A, C and E, carotenoids, flavonoids, minerals, glycosides and anthocyanins [30]. For instance, naturally occurring mutations (in grapevine) and gene editing (in kiwifruit) have been used to modify plant architecture, which will be useful for indoor growing in restricted spaces. In a recent study, tomato and cherry plants were engineered using CRISPR–Cas9 to combine the following three desirable traits: a dwarf phenotype, a compact growth habit and precocious flowering. The suitability of the resulting ‘edited’ tomato varieties for use in indoor farming systems was validated using field and commercial vertical-farm trials [45]. A review of molecular breeding to create optimized crops discussed the added value of agricultural products by developing agricultural crops with health benefits and as edible medicines [34]. The main approaches to develop agricultural crops with health benefits were identified as the accumulation of large quantities of a desirable intrinsic nutrient or reduction in undesirable compounds, and the accumulation of valuable compounds that are not normally produced in the crop.

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