UK University to Create Climate-Resilient Crops in £3M AI-Powered Plant Lab

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The University of Essex has built a new facility to develop crops that can adapt to a hotter and drier planet, which features a vertical farm and is backed by AI-assisted research.

Researchers at the University of Essex will leverage AI, robotics, vertical farming and imitation suites to create crops for “tomorrow’s atmosphere today” in a new flagship facility.

Slated to officially open later this year, the £3M Smart Technology Experimental Plant Suite (STEPS) lab builds on the work of the Essex Plant Innovation Centre (EPIC), which brings together farmers, technologists and scientists to improve crop resilience to drought, increase yields, and enhance food security during extreme weather events.

“This state-of-the-art facility will help the world cope with a growing population by ensuring future food security by developing climate resilient plants,” said project lead Tracy Lawson, a biologist whose expertise lies in plant productivity, improving photosynthetic processes, and boosting crop water use. She suggested that the lab “places plant research at Essex in a unique position” to grow and select future-facing plants.

Leveraging AI, vertical farms and warming suites

climate resilient crops
Courtesy: University of Essex

The lab features a commercially standard vertical farm (claimed to be the UK’s first for a university), an indoor field that can simulate real environments from anywhere on the planet, and suites that replicate a warming world (researchers can raise both temperature and CO2 levels). According to the University of Essex, this is the only lab in the UK that combines all these facilities.

The team will also use plant scanning technology to monitor plants as they grow, and pick out precise changes in photosynthesis. The research, meanwhile, will be facilitated with AI and robotics, which will develop new ideas, technologies and strategies to predict changes in agriculture and the atmosphere.

The STEPS lab will develop strategies to optimise plant performance whilst working towards net zero. The UK has committed to reaching net zero by 2050, although, based on its current policies, it lags behind the 2030 internationally agreed target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 68% (from 1990 levels).

It was partly funded by the Wolfson Foundation, which pledged £1M to support the development. It will help the researchers foster connections with agriculture, horticulture, and technology businesses to progress their crop development efforts.

“We are in a race against time to futureproof agriculture against climate change, not just in the UK but globally,” said Paul Ramsbottom, CEO of the Wolfson Foundation. “The University of Essex is leading the way in critical research and development to support innovation and sustainability in food production, and we are delighted to be funding the technology platforms that will help them achieve this.”

Future-friendly crops vital in a climate-threatened country

university of essex steps lab
Courtesy: University of Essex

The climate-resilient crop lab will put students at the forefront of its work, who will help develop and conduct experiments with the University of Essex’s researchers. It means young scientists can begin their careers in the facility.

“This cutting-edge lab will put us at the forefront of research into how we can help plants change and adapt to climate change – helping secure everyone’s future,” said Lawson.

The project also involves vertical farming tech provider Innovation Agritech Group (IAG), which installed the vertical farm unit and deployed a full-scale GrowFrame 360 solution – this system is said to produce a healthier root system, superior crop growth, and higher yields with no climate dependency.

“Our innovative GrowFrame360 technology will empower scientists and students alike to tackle the complexities of a changing climate on future crop production, aiming for future food security,” explained Kate Brunswick, business development director at IAG. “This milestone collaboration embodies our collective dedication to driving positive change in agriculture.”

The UK has been dealing with climate-induced food shocks and price hikes for a while now. A recent study by World Weather Attribution found that the relentless rainfall and storms during the autumn-winter period of 2023-24 were 10 times more likely to happen and 20% wetter because of climate change. And separate research by Lynx Purchasing warns that such wet weather can cause an 8% price hike for in-demand produce – for context, headline inflation rates in the UK were 2.3% in April, and that was after a decline from previous months.

Extreme weather is further causing food shortages in Britain, with many areas unable to grow staple crops like potatoes, wheat and vegetables in the spring – and those that have been planted are of poor quality, and some are rotting in the ground. All this has made the UK more reliant on imports, just as the country battles growing food insecurity. In January, 15% of households went hungry.

With a population set to increase by nearly 10% by 2036, solutions like the ones being developed by the University of Essex’s new lab might be vital.


  • Anay Mridul

    Anay is Green Queen's resident news reporter. Originally from India, he worked as a vegan food writer and editor in London, and is now travelling and reporting from across Asia. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, food tech, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford comma.

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