Science Discovers Wheat Crops Grow Faster Under LED Lights

It may sound crazy, but it’ll actually cut your harvest time in half! Crop scientists have recently discovered they can produce wheat faster by raising the grain under LED grow lights. It’s a timely discovery, with increasing global pressure to grow staple crops in a speedy manner. Such a method is essential to feed future populations.

Normally, intense seed breeding work takes place in a greenhouse which allows extended growing seasons and multiple crops. Most crops, however, need a far longer daylight period than the winter sun provides. So, breeders add supplemental high-intensity lighting to the greenhouse to finish two-three crops a year. But researchers have found that LED grow lights and a controlled-environment grow room now make it possible to get four-six harvests a year. For example, you can get four in canola breeding, and six in wheat, peas, chickpeas and barley.

That’s amazingly fast compared to the techniques commonly used in commercial crop breeding. In fact, it’s three times faster! There were some doubts over the plant quality possible under LED grow lights because HPS is used as a sun supplement in greenhouses. Some wondered if the method would result in scrawny plants with a few paltry seeds per head. The finished wheat, however, lays all of those concerns to rest.

Developed by research teams at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich, UK and Australia’s Queensland and Sydney universities, this new “speed breeding” regime under LED grow lights focuses on achieving more crop improvements annually. Researchers discovered that with the right LED grow lights recipe, they can bring wheat to maturity in just eight weeks, compared to 16 weeks in the farm fields.

In all fairness, this lightning fast ‘seed-to-seed‘ wheat generation would take 15 days longer if the mature wheat wasn’t mechanically dried. But, allowing it to naturally dry ties-up growing space for a total of one month for every two plantings. Six harvests per year isn’t possible when relying on natural seed finishing. Luckily, the seed is still viable, and growers can use it to plant the next generation.

The John Innes Centre calls this discovery an “exciting breakthrough”. NASA actually explored the idea a decade ago but LED grow light technology has come a long way since then. It’s so exciting, that at least one UK seed company is now working closely with JIC scientist Dr. Brande Wulff to develop the method for a commercial setting. It is also scalable to work in a standard glass house with a fully controlled environment.

LED Lights

What kind of LED grow lights are these researchers using? Most news sources simply say they’re using LEDs. But we know Garden Culture readers want to learn more! ZME Science says the specially-tuned lighting emits far-red spectrum and runs 22 hours a day. Its paper, published in Nature Plants in January, had the following to say about the grow rooms, light power and recipes:

They used two controlled-environment grow rooms: one a research industry chamber from Conviron, and the other an inexpensive, homemade grow room. They also ran different LED grow lights in both rooms, and for different daylight periods. Crops in the Conviron chamber received 22 daylight hours, while those in the low-cost grow room got 12 hours for the first 4 weeks, and 18 hours for the rest of the crop cycle. Indoor growers take note – they did not use CO2.

The Conviron room ran six bar-style, white LED grow lights mixed with far-red LEDs and CMH quartz iodide lamps – all from Valoya. Bench height intensity ranged from 360-380 µmol m-2 s-1 and adult-height plants had 490-500 µmol m-2 s-1. Meanwhile, the homemade 3m x 3m x 3m (9.8 ft) grow room crops basked under a series of seven 450W Grow Candy LB-8 COB LEDs. This lighting system delivered 210-260 µmol m-2 s-1 at bench height and 340-590 µmol m-2 s-1 at 55 inches above that. To see the spectral output and other photos, visit the paper supplements.

You might be wondering: Why build a homemade grow room and use indoor gardening LED grow lights in a scientific research project? The answer: To see what one can accomplish with a low-cost setup. It seems that it worked quite well, but the scientists noted that enhanced PAR with blue, red, and far-red light performed better. This is all being used for commercial crop development, but it has me wondering what the possibilities are for intensive wheat cropping locally. Perhaps it isn’t feasible, but before now, neither was growing wheat in eight weeks.

Who knows what’s on the horizon? Maybe there are more ways to feed the world than we thought. Time, research, and technology will tell. If you feel like putting on your thinking cap, researchers grew 900 wheat plants in a 32 sq ft (3 m x 3m) room. They didn’t use hydroponics but did have drip irrigation. Anyone interested in indoor wheat farming?

You can learn more details about the project and the growing environments via this full journal paper shared download link.

News sources:

Images courtesy of Yair Aronshtam and John Innes Centre  (respectively).

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.