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UCC project shines a light on healthier food
Growing horticultural crops under cover is a challenge, especially given current pressures to reliably produce high quality food locally with minimal environmental impact. A research project in UCC has now developed a lighting system that improves the nutritional value of our plant foods.
In Ireland many of our food crops are grown in glasshouses or polytunnels. This offers plants protection from adverse weather conditions, including low temperatures, and allows us to grow crops from warmer regions successfully in Ireland.
“However,”, says Prof. Marcel Jansen of the UCC School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Sciences, “the glass or plastic used to protect crops also changes the light that reaches the plants. The amount of light is not only lower in intensity than outside, but the type of light is also changed, with the UV part of natural sunlight filtered out”.
We are warned that UV light can cause us harm, but UV light is actually beneficial for plants. Both UVA and UVB affect plant size, and improve colour, taste, and smell, as well as nutritional qualities. As pointed out by Prof. Jansen, “sun-ripened fruits really do taste better”.
“Additional artificial lighting is already used to increase the light intensity in glasshouses, but so far these lighting systems have not considered the problem of the lack of UV. Now we have developed working LED lighting technology in the UV part of the spectrum as well,” says Dr Alan Morrison of the UCC School of Engineering and Architecture, who developed the technology. As Prof. Jansen points out: “Our research shows that plants grow better when there are natural amounts of UV light present. And importantly for the consumer, UV encourages plants to produce more vitamins, which make our salads so much healthier to eat.”
The collaborative project, funded by Science Foundation Ireland, has evaluated the innovative, UV-LED systems in plant growth trials and is currently looking for potential partners from commercial horticulture to further develop this UV technology.
For Science Week the team released a video to explain more about the project.