WE’RE not used to seeing empty food shelves in this country; nor to being restricted on how many tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cauliflowers or raspberries we can buy at a time.

Leading supermarket bosses were summoned by Government last week to explain the reasons for what’s been labelled “a growing national crisis”.

Its list of reasons included everything from Brexit to the Ukraine war, climate change extreme events which have hurt crops in Spain and north Africa, compounded by high energy prices impacting struggling UK growers, ongoing issues with supply chains, and food inflation at a 45-year high.

In the past three tumultuous years, we have seen just how fragile the global food ecosystem is to shocks, be they economic or climatic.

Britain’s fruit and vegetable deficit alone is now an enormous £6 billion per annum. With climate change, water is diminishing in the countries we must depend on for some of our most cherished items – not just luxury ones.

In the UK, much of our produce is normally grown in heated, lit glasshouses during winter – but much of our food supply was planted late this year or not at all, as farmers struggled to meet energy costs, making us all more dependent on world markets for supplies.

Scottish and UK agriculture has been diversifying and adapting at an astonishing rate. Indeed, research and innovation will play a significant role in supporting what I would argue is the world’s most important industry – food and growing it, in ever-changing political and environmental conditions.

This type of national and global food security dominates our agenda at the James Hutton Institute.

Read more: Scotland is at the forefront of agricultural innovation

We are squarely focused on rethinking everyone’s, not just Scotland’s, relationship with food – how it’s produced, how it affects nature, and how we can democratise innovation so that all can benefit not just those that can afford it.

The genie is out of the bottle with respect to the diversity of food the consumer can access and now demands. Consequently, we are looking at how to grow and manufacture a more diverse range of quality food locally all year-round, reducing the dependence on imports; how produce could be transported on simpler supply chains less prone to shocks; how we can fight back against the ravages of centuries of over-consumption; and discover better ways of feeding ourselves without further damaging our environment.

We have already done pioneering work on finding new climate-positive food and drink products; piloted revolutionary technologies for crop management to leave less of a footprint on the land, such as using precision agriculture sensors and drones, indoor farming techniques, and creating more nutritious crops including new varieties of potatoes that are not only climate-adapted and resistant to disease, but even use less energy to cook.

The opening of the first phase of our new £62m Advanced Plant Growth Centre (APGC) and International Barley Hub in Invergowrie took place in January and will be developed over the next year with industry and academic partners including the University of Dundee, and other global higher education institutions. This is a fantastic example of how such Scottish knowledge could be exported globally.

We also have blueprints in place for a dedicated International Potato Innovation Centre, focused on finding smarter potato growing systems and diagnostics, modelling for vastly improved pest and disease control, and making potato production more climate and environment friendly.

Locally, the APGC will bring significant economic impact and an estimated 800 full-time equivalent jobs to the UK food and drink supply chain.

The headline technology likely to feature most prominently is vertical farming, including plant/light interaction and sensor technology to understand factors that affect taste, flavour, aroma, and nutritional content. Nearly 20 years after the first vertical farms opened, billions have been invested in these indoor growing techniques, more than any other part of the agri-tech industry. In theory, they offer enormous benefits, none more than they often use as much as 90% less water than traditional farms.

These farms in warehouses, typically multiple layers of plants stacked toward the ceiling in rows, can still be expensive to build and run, but the technology around light use and energy control is advancing and reducing costs continually.

The Herald:

The potential of vertical farming is mind-blowing and we have, with our partners Intelligent Growth Solutions, calculated that, using their growing towers vertical farming on 6,000 acres could deliver "five-a-day" to the entire British population: According to the Scottish Vacant and Derelict Land Survey (2021) that represents about a quarter of the derelict land in Scotland.

The APGC mission also includes looking to develop plant varieties best suited for vertical growth, including those suitable for automatic harvesting and bio-pharma use. We’ll be developing "speed breeding" of varieties to cut the development time for new crops, while adapting crop varieties to tolerate climate change and evolving pest and disease risks, and creating post-harvest facilities to cut losses during processing, transport, and storage.

At the recent National Farmers Union’s conference, president Minette Batters identified that she was struck by “the opportunities we now have to deliver a step change in the productivity of UK agriculture through the application of science into practice”, whilst her deputy Tom Bradshaw, identified the need for the UK to “take command” of its own food production. Strong statements identifying the need to work together.

Read more: Edinburgh vertical farming firm bid to tackle food shortages

The Hutton’s pioneering work means Scotland is punching well above its weight when it comes to discovering genuinely ground-breaking practical solutions to making this giant worldwide industry not only more productive, but greener and more sustainable.

Our goal is to produce solutions that truly transform the way we and the rest of world grows and eats its food and use plants for additional uses such as sources of sustainable materials, chemicals and medicines.

For Scotland, the APGC aims to revolutionise crop production systems to produce food locally, 365 days a year, with less environmental impact, completely independent of weather or availability of agriculture land.

This ground-breaking research in Invergowrie is important economically, nationally and internationally, to safeguard food supply – not only on our own doorsteps, but on those in every corner of the world.

Professor Derek Stewart is Director of the Advanced Plant Growth Centre at The James Hutton Institute