Baby red romaine lettuce growing in a vertical farm, technology made possible thanks to space agtech innovation. Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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- Space innovation can transform terrestrial agriculture, as it has other sectors.
- Vertical farming and LED lighting are two past examples of agtech developed in space.
- Seeds could be the next frontier for space agtech.
The effects of climate change are impossible to ignore, particularly as record-breaking temperatures, tides and weather events wreak havoc across the globe. Worldwide, 12 million hectares of land valuable to agriculture are lost every year, and global agriculture production will need to increase by 70% to meet the demand of an expanding population. It’s no surprise that we are seeing steady growth, investment and, most importantly, innovation in the agtech market, including the space industry.
The value that space innovation has already created here on Earth is immeasurable. NASA says its return on investment on the US economy is more than three times its annual budget. From cellular data and hurricane predictions to robotics and health science, many aspects of our lives are made significantly easier, more efficient or more enjoyable thanks to the breakthroughs and utilization made in space. We are now seeing tremendous potential for research and technological advancement for agtech in space, with applications that will both enable future prolonged extraterrestrial habitation, as well as improve agricultural practices here on Earth.
Developing sustainable and scalable food sources for astronauts will be critical to our ability to successfully establish and expand new destinations in space. A few commercial companies, including Voyager, are actively developing new commercial space stations to replace the International Space Station (ISS), and with these new destinations comes a need to provide nutrient-dense food for inhabitants.
Because the space environment presents us with challenges we aren’t required to face down here, researchers are forced to think outside the normal constraints of what is possible to devise solutions that often lead to game-changing innovations here on Earth. For example, NASA helped develop biologically oriented LED technology to help plants grow indoors.
This idea was born out of initial research on how long-duration spaceflight affected the human body. From 1997 to 2017, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) received grants from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to study light sources and how they changed brain activity. Researchers found that blue light affected how the body produces melatonin, a critical hormone for keeping astronauts’ biological clocks running on time. This discovery led NASA to replace the space station’s fluorescent lighting with LEDs.
They consumed less energy, emitted less heat, and changed colour, temperature and intensity to reflect astronauts’ circadian rhythms. The ability to change these features also proved relevant for growing plants indoors, with LEDs providing the right wavelengths for photosynthesis.
Impact of space Agtech on farming on Earth
Around the same time the NSBRI kicked off its research, Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, and his 105 graduate students came up with the vertical farm, “a multi-storey building growing layers of crops on each floor”. Alongside climate controls, NASA-developed LED lights were a game-changer for terrestrial vertical farming, easily programmed to deliver specific, preferred wavelengths for each crop and delivering prime growing conditions.
Vertical farming is impactful for many reasons. First, vertical farms have a much higher yield than traditional ones. A vertically farmed acre can produce the equivalent of four to six soil-based acres, depending on the crop. Second, vertical farms offer a year-round growing season, free from weather or pests. Third, vertical farms are much more sustainable – both for the crops themselves and the Earth. They operate without the need for pesticides or herbicides, and since they don’t need farm equipment, use (and produce) minimal fossil fuels.
Now, vertical farming is one of the fastest-growing sectors within agriculture, with many entrepreneurs inspired by the chance to reduce the water and land needed to support crops. The next generation of vertical farms will hopefully target staple crops – like wheat, corn and soy – which make up the vast majority of Earth’s farmland and demand major resources.
The first Moon landing also helped set standards that affect how our food is produced and kept safe today. Outbreaks of food poisoning from packaged supermarket food are now exceedingly rare, thanks to the industry’s near-universal adoption of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system. This system was created for astronaut food in the early days of the Apollo programme, with three guiding principles: conduct a hazard analysis, identify critical points and determine how hazards can be prevented, controlled or eliminated, and monitor those points with frequent measurements. Now, this same system enables food companies to consistently deliver safe, quality food to consumers.
This exporting of technical knowledge and hardware developed through space solutions, or “tech transfer”, has the potential to catalyze dramatic changes to existing agricultural practices as our planet’s resources continue to dwindle. As of today, world hunger affects nearly 10% of the global population, and 40% of plant species on Earth are heading towards extinction. Unfortunately, our solutions for these challenges currently fall far short, though an important new deal to protect biodiversity was struck at COP15 in December. We need to continue to explore new tools to allow organisms to keep up with a rapidly changing climate and our growing population.
In addition to climate mitigation efforts being undertaken across multiple sectors, global agriculture requires radically new biological and technical innovations to increase the sector’s adaptability and reduce crop losses to maintain farm profitability in an increasingly competitive marketplace. StarLab Oasis, an Abu Dhabi-based agricultural research firm and a Voyager Space company, is planning to use the space environment’s unique mix of microgravity, deep space radiation, and launch vibrations as a tool to develop crop seeds with novel, beneficial traits. This concept of introducing physical stressors to seeds to develop new traits has been conducted on Earth for nearly 100 years and is responsible for over 3,200 different crops. Off-Earth crop breeding specifically has produced “more than 200 space plant and fruit varieties, including rice, wheat, maize, soybeans, cotton and tomatoes'' worth “$29.9 billion of over 1.3 million tonnes of food”, according to China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.
Novel seeds are another massive opportunity for agtech innovation in space. NASA is already working to tailor seeds flown aboard the space station to better thrive in that environment. By using seed film – a water-soluble polymer embedded with seeds – multiple seeds can be stored, handled and controlled at once, and nutrients could be added to the seed film solution to stimulate growth. NASA hopes to embed seed film with nutrients to protect plants from stress encountered in microgravity, or enrich seed film with growth promoting micro-organisms. If successful, seed film could be a viable option for farmers on Earth looking to tailor plants to be more resilient in the face of stressors.
Technologies developed for space agtech also have applications that extend beyond agriculture to support larger sustainability initiatives. Last year, NASA launched new regenerative life-support hardware, the Environmental Control and Life Support System. This technology enables more crew members to live aboard the space station for a longer period, with less resources needing to be delivered. The hardware encompasses two systems – an air revitalization system and a water recovery system – that remove contaminants. The water recovery system is particularly powerful, with a 93.5% recovery rate. This proven ability to recycle wastewater has incredible potential to make an impact on Earth, especially in remote settings with little access to fresh water.
What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?
The list of space innovations and technologies that have terrestrial applications is extensive and will continue to grow as resources and opportunities for research increase. Our vision is a future of economically affordable and sustainably grown nutritious food for humanity, anywhere in the universe, and space will certainly play a pivotal role in getting us closer to it.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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