Power Plants: Can Electricity Boost Crop Yields?

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Could electricity help to reduce insect attack, boost yields and enhance the quality of fruit and vegetable crops? A series of research programs in China is underway using electric fields inside glasshouses, according to a profile article recently published in New Scientist.

Scientists are reporting that yields can be boosted significantly when the crops are exposed to a mild electric current, with yields of lettuce and cucumber increasing by up to 40 per cent. Research in Mexico using maize also reports that a mild electric current provided through soil electrodes increased the yield of the crop by over 85 per cent, a huge increase for a crop that feeds billions of people.

It is all a little bit mysterious. Research into the benefits of ‘electroculture’ is not new – experiments as far back as the 1880’s seemed to show that electricity stimulated crops. Finnish scientist Karl Selim Lemström was studying the northern lights in Lapland and noticed how well fir trees grew there, despite the harsh cold conditions. In his experiments on various crops, there were mixed results, but carrot and pea crops that he grew in France showed dramatic increases of 75 per cent and 125 per cent respectively.

Renowned English scientist J.H. Priestley replicated the experiments and also found that cucumbers increased their growth by 17 per cent, adding weight to Lemström’s claims. Oliver Lodge strung electric wires over a wheat crop which performed 24 per cent better than those without electricity. At the end of the First World War, the UK established an Electro Culture Committee that trialled cereals and potatoes, and despite apparent increases in yield of around 20 percent, they deed the cost of electricity to be too high to make these yields economical.

The renewed push for research in China came about more from a push towards sustainable and eco-friendly agriculture than yield gains. Some of the research showed that electricity deterred insects and even bacteria, as a result of the production of charged particles that ‘zap’ these pathogens.

Scientists remain uncertain as to the exact mechanisms by which electricity might stimulate plant growth. Some believe that electricity simulates the electricity generated by lightning, suggesting that the electricity is a precursor to the arrival of nitrogen-rich rain. If, however, the electricity appears without rain perhaps that causes the results where sometimes yields did not increase.

“The mechanisms that underpin these observations remain elusive. But there is definitely a very interesting interaction between plants and their electrical environment – time will tell how this might actually benefit agriculture”, says Dr Ellard Hunting from the University of Bristol in the UK. “In a nutshell, plants do respond to electric fields”, says Jean Yong at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science at Uppsala University. “It is logical that an electric field could speed up the flow of crucial nutrient ions like nitrate or calcium. But the research is inconclusive.”

Perhaps with the rise of electricity-generating films for glasshouses and cheaper solar panels, more research into electric crops might be on the way. Maybe you’ll get your vegetables free of charge?

The original article was published in New Scientist on 24 August 2019 by Donna Lu and David Hambling.

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