Vertical Future grows centuries-old spinach in CHOPS trial

Vertical farming firm Vertical Future has launched a research project to revive a centuries-old variety of spinach, which it expects to supply to supermarkets within two years.

LONDON, March 3rd (The Grocer) – CEO of Vertical Future Jamie Burrows: ‘Going back to older varieties, we are growing plants that have lower disease resistance but stronger flavour properties’.

Viroflay Spinach from the 1600s is among several heirloom varieties now being grown by the company in trials, which promise to be “more flavoursome and less costly than current widely available types”. “A large proportion of modern plant breeding programmes aim at increasing disease and stress resistance in plants – this being a quality that heirloom varieties don’t possess means they are able to thrive in vertical farming systems,” Vertical Future CEO Jamie Burrows told The Grocer.

“Plants that have been bred to have strong disease resistance tend to have reduced flavour. Going back to older varieties, we are growing plants that have lower disease resistance but stronger flavour properties.”

Since indoor vertical farming offers a controlled environment for growing crops, less hardy plants can prosper. It’s a much cleaner growing environment, so disease resistance is no longer a priority,” Burrows said.

The company is working with non-toxic seed sterilisation specialist Zayndu to apply air and electricity to the seeds before planting to kill any fungi or bacteria on their surfaces.“Currently it is still uneconomical to produce seeds within controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) facilities and so these are produced outside. The result is that the outer shell of the seed is now the main source of disease that enters a CEA production. When a disease takes hold in CEA, it can be devastating as the conditions that a plant thrives in are the same as those a fungus or bacteria will,” explained Dr Jen Bromley, chief research officer at Vertical Future.

The CEA Heirloom Optimisation & Pathogen Control for Seeds ‘CHOPS’ project has been backed by Innovate UK and comes after Vertical Future secured £21m in new funding last month.The seeds have been sourced from a number of suppliers which typically supply the amateur gardener market.

The taste of the varieties being grown vary, with “some varieties being sweet, some being mellow, and some being more peppery than the earthy tastes you might expect from a shop-bought spinach” Burrows said.

They also show a “greater diversity in phenotype” compared to modern varieties. Viroflay often grows even faster than many modern varieties and is typically leafier, while other varieties like Amador have a thick long stem, and smaller leaves.

“This is expected given that some of them are from the early 1900s, and so at the time there will of course have been a much less consumer-orientated breeding programme,” Burrows said.

While leafy greens are the focus for current research, Burrows said many crops can be grown indoors including herbs, microgreens, whole head lettuces, strawberries and other small fruits.

As Ralph Weir, Zayndu CEO, put it: “If disease tolerance comes at the expense of taste, shouldn’t we eliminate the disease rather than risk growing plants that taste like cardboard? That is the promise of this programme.”