What inspires plant scientists and why is their job so important? Peter Bickerton explains:
Why did you want to be a plant scientist?
Actually, at school I didn’t. I knew I loved biology, and about learning about living things, but unfortunately school (at least in England) doesn’t really help stimulate a passion for plants. However, while at the University of Manchester, I was inspired by several people there, including Liz Sheffield, on just how fascinating the life of plants really is. As soon as I’d finished a field trip to Mallorca, where we studied endemic plant species and their various adaptations, I decided to switch to studying plant science and I never looked back.
Can you explain what your job involves?
I would say that I have three jobs!
I currently work as a plant scientist for agrilution, a start-up company based in Munich. We are developing a climate-controlled, hydroponics based plant cultivation device that can be used in the kitchen to grow herbs and microgreens. My role involves growing a variety of plants and tweaking the system so that we can set the best conditions that provide the fastest growing, healthiest and most nutritious plants possible. We are using the latest LED lighting technology, which is enabling us to provide tailored lighting conditions for individual cultivars.
I am also very passionate, about science communication – especially relating to food security. Like many plant scientists, a big driver for my interest is thinking about how we can provide food for an ever-increasing global population. Thus, I have been an ambassador for Thought for Food for over 5 years – an international movement that encourages innovation from the next generation into how we can reduce food insecurity on a global scale. I also am very active in public engagement, and I contribute to scientific communications on a regular basis, for example as a part-time writer at the Earlham Institute in Norwich, UK.
What are the pest’s/crop enhancements that you are working on?
With my work at agrilution, we are actually ensuring that the consumer can grow their own food – pest free – in the comfort of their own home. We are really looking at how quickly it is possible to grow a range of plants in a controlled environment, where we can monitor and adjust a whole suite of variables, from light and temperature through to watering and fertigation.
Can you describe how this technology will benefit farmer/society?
We live in an increasingly urbanized world. As much as it’s important to produce crops in fields, this cannot sustain entirely the increasing movement of people from the countryside to cities. Take Beijing, for example. At the rate it is growing, and consuming other cities around it, eventually you could drive for 100km and never leave the city limits.
We have to start looking at producing food exactly where it is needed. As such, there is an expanding global movement looking towards vertical farming systems, which use techniques such as aquaponics and hydroponics to provide fresh food, year-round. Our work is just one example of how we can bring food production closer to home, specifically in this case by allowing users to easily grow nutritious food in their very own kitchen.
Why is your profession important in the challenge to feed the world?
As plant scientists, we are not only interested in how plants work, but how we can make the most out of them. I think we all share a passion for understanding just how these incredibly resilient and adaptive organisms can survive and thrive in a range of conditions. In a world of increasing population and dwindling resources, we are currently faced with getting more from less, a skill which plant scientists have in abundance.
What inspires you about your job?
I love plants and I love inspiring others about plants. We live in a world where many people are disengaged from what they eat and consume. It’s so easy to pick up a ready meal and throw away that packaging that many people don’t stop to consider where, or how, their food was produced.
Through being actively involved in such a vibrant community as the one behind the vertical farming revolution, as well as witnessing the growth and successes of organizations such as Thought for Food, it’s clear that there is a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to ensuring a secure food future for everyone.
Peter is a passionate communicator of plant science, regularly speaking at public lectures and workshops. He is an ambassador of Thought for Food, an international movement dedicated to fostering innovations in order to help solve the global food crisis.