Scientists Might Have Just Cracked the Code To Grow More Crops with Less Energy and Water

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Scientists Might Have Just Cracked the Code To Grow More Crops with Less Energy and Water
Photo by Zbynek Burival/ Unsplash

The human population on planet earth surpassed eight billion this year. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and the population is only going to continue to grow. Current projections estimate that we’ll need to produce 50% to 60% more food in the next 20 years. That effort will require 30% to 40% more water and about 50% more energy. All the while we still only get one planet’s worth of resources.

Majdi Abou Najm, a researcher at UC Davis studying soil biophysics, says the question of how to feed the world will require more than just incremental advances in our current technology. In a new publication in Earth’s Future, Abou Najm and his co-author Matteo Camporese, lay out an ambitious vision of the future that aims to boost crop yields by partially shading them with solar panels.


Reducing the amount of sun available to crops may sound like a backwards idea when it comes to growing more food. But in many agricultural hotspots, including the Central Valley, water is the limiting resource for crop yield, and turning down the lights a bit would actually help farmers grow more food with less water. The idea would mean that the farmers of the future could control which wavelengths of light shine on their strawberries versus their tomatoes–and then collect everything else with the solar panel, adding another source of revenue or energy savings to their operation.

Using a series of simulations based on real-world photosynthesis data, the researchers showed that the blue wavelengths (shorter waves) of the UV spectrum were less efficient for powering photosynthesis than the red (longer waves). Meanwhile, the blue wavelengths were the best for powering solar panels. The scientists show that if we could develop panels that absorb that blue light while allowing the red to pass through onto plants, you could use the same land to grow food and power the grid.

“We always treated the sun as a boundary condition. If the weather is hotter, we irrigate more,” says Abou Najm. “We can look at light as its own full, diverse resource. We can go into the different spectrums of light and optimize those as we do this exercise.”

Transparent solar cells may sound like a futuristic fantasy, but the technology has been in development for over a decade. While today’s best versions still aren’t as efficient as traditional cells, Abou Najm argues that, if the gap keeps closing, the benefits of reducing land and water usage will begin to outweigh efficiency losses.

There are still questions to be answered: How, for one, do you harvest crops covered by solar panels? And fine tuning which wavelengths of light should be let through the panel will vary on a crop-by-crop basis. Lettuce might grow best with light in the 590–640 nanometer range while strawberries might prefer 700–730. But if researchers can tease apart each plant’s preferences and build corresponding solar cells, the crops of the future may grow just as tall with less water while sharing the land area with solar panels.

That kind of thinking, Abou Najm says, could be transformative to agriculture on Earth.

“The main message here is to see light as a resource and add it to the equation that we optimize when we want to maximize the efficiency of land,” he says.

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Two LA Startups Participate in Techstars' 2023 Health Care Accelerator

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Two LA Startups Participate in Techstars' 2023 Health Care Accelerator
Courtesy of Techstars

Earlier this month, Techstars announced that their 2023 accelerator program will have two simultaneous cohorts–Techstars health care and L.A. As previously reported on dot.LA, Techstars has brought on board returning partners Cedars Sinai, United Healthcare, along with new partners that include UCI Health and Point32Health for its health care cohort.

“For our healthcare program, this is the first time we've had multiple partners as sponsors,” Managing Director Matt Kozlov said. “This allows us to support and mentor a wider diversity of companies than we've been able to help historically.”

The in-person program is taking place in Los Angeles and two out of the twelve companies accepted into the health care program are based in Southern California.

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Why Pierced Media Is Betting on Creators To Be The Next Generation of Podcast Stars

Nat Rubio-Licht
Nat Rubio-Licht is a freelance reporter with dot.LA. They previously worked at Protocol writing the Source Code newsletter and at the L.A. Business Journal covering tech and aerospace. They can be reached at nat@dot.la.
Why Pierced Media Is Betting on Creators To Be The Next Generation of Podcast Stars
Evan Xie

It’s no secret that men dominate the podcasting industry. Even as women continue to grow their foothold, men still make up many of the highest-earning podcasts, raking in massive paychecks from ad revenue and striking deals with streaming platforms worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

But a new demographic is changing that narrative: Gen-Z female influencers and content creators.

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nat@dot.la

NASA’s JPL Receives Billions to Begin Understanding Our Solar System

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

NASA’s JPL Receives Billions to Begin Understanding Our Solar System
Evan Xie

NASA’s footprint in California is growing as the agency prepares for Congress to approve its proposed 2024 budget.

The overall NASA budget swelled 6% from the prior year, JPL deputy director Larry James told dot.LA. He added he sees that as a continuation of the last two presidential administrations’ focus on modernizing and bolstering the nation’s space program.

The money goes largely to existing NASA centers in California, including the Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory run with Caltech, Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.

California remains a hotspot for NASA space activity and investment. In 2021, the agency estimated its economic output impact on the region to be around $15.2 billion. That was far more than its closest competing states, including Texas ($9.3 billion) and Maryland (roughly $8 billion). That same year, NASA reported it employed over 66,000 people in California.

“In general, Congress has been very supportive” of the JPL and NASA’s missions, James said. “It’s generally bipartisan [and] supported by both sides of the aisle. In the last few years in general NASA has been able to have increased budgets.”

There are 41 current missions run by JPL and CalTech, and another 16 scheduled for the future. James added the new budget is “an incredible support for all the missions we want to do.”

The public-private partnership between NASA and local space companies continues to evolve, and the increased budget could be a boon for LA-based developers. Numerous contractors for NASA (including CalTech, which runs the JPL), Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Northrop Grumman all stand to gain new contracts once the budget is finalized, partly because NASA simply needs the private industry’s help to achieve all its goals.

James said that there was only one JPL mission that wasn’t funded – a mission to send an orbital satellite to survey the surface and interior of Venus, called VERITAS.

NASA Employment and Output ImpactEvan Xie

The Moon and Mars

Much of the money earmarked in the proposed 2024 budget is for crewed missions. Overall, NASA’s asking for $8 billion from Congress to fund lunar exploration missions. As part of this, the majority is earmarked for the upcoming Artemis mission, which aims to land a woman and person of color on the Moon’s south pole.

While there’s a number of high-profile missions the JPL is working on that are focused on Mars, including Mars Sample Return project (which received $949 million in this proposed budget) and Ingenuity helicopter and Perseverance rover, JPL also received significant funding to study the Earth’s climate and behavior.

JPL also got funding for several projects to map our universe. One is the SphereX Near Earth Objects surveyor mission, the goal of which is to use telescopes to “map the entire universe,” James said, adding that the mission was fully funded.

International Space Station

NASA’s also asking for more money to maintain the International Space Station (ISS), which houses a number of projects dedicated to better understanding the Earth’s climate and behavior.

The agency requested roughly $1.3 billion to maintain the ISS. It also is increasing its investment in space flight support, in-space transportation and commercial development of low-earth orbit (LEO). “The ISS is an incredible platform for us,” James said.

James added there are multiple missions outside or on board the ISS now taking data, including EMIT, which launched in July 2022. The EMIT mission studies arid dust sources on the planet using spectroscopy. It uses that data to remodel how mineral dust movement in North and South America might affect the Earth’s temperature changes.

Another ISS mission JPL launched is called ECOSTRESS. The mission sent a thermal radiometer onto the space station in June 2018 to monitor how plants lose water through their leaves, with the goal of figuring out how the terrestrial biosphere reacts to changes in water availability. James said the plan is to “tell you the kind of foliage health around the globe” from space.

One other ISS project is called Cold Atom Lab. It is “an incredible fundamental physics machine,” James said, that’s run by “three Nobel Prize winners as principal investigators on the Space Station.” Cold Atom Lab is a physics experiment geared toward figuring out how quantum phenomena behave in space by cooling atoms with lasers to just below absolute zero degrees.

In the long term, James was optimistic NASA’s imaging projects could lead to more dramatic discoveries. Surveying the makeup of planets’ atmospheres is a project “in the astrophysics domain we’re very excited about,” James said. He added that this imaging could lead to information about life on other planets, or, at the very least, an understanding of why they’re no longer habitable.

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