Disruptive technologies in horticulture

Disruptive technologies change everything, as once the steam train, the car or, in today’s world, the smartphone. They are, however, difficult to imagine in today’s horticultural business.

Nevertheless, it is pretty safe to think that new technologies will also bring about significant change in our industry. Think cut rose production. Because of modern means of transportation roses are now produced primarily in climatically- and economically- favored African countries with a large portion of conventional rose greenhouse production in Northern Europe being shut down.

Nursery stock business is the long term variant of ornamental horticulture. While bedding and balcony plants are produced on a weekly basis, tree nurseries count in years and decades. In this context, disruptive technologies are more likely to be expected in other segments of horticulture than nursery stock trade. In tree growing, for example, all depends on good long-term cultivation of plants, but that is only a small part of it.

However, there have also been many changes in the nursery sector, which can certainly be described as disruptive.

Containerised production has allowed for ‘industrial’ production. Beyond qualitative questions, this type of cultivation has brought with it an intensification of the growing area. Also, it enabled a supply of plants throughout the year, decoupled from the seasons.

Today, modern techniques are designed to reorganise our nursery activities. The glasshouse production allows fully automated on-schedule control of crop flowering time, leaf colour, etc. Due to digitalization, the production parameters are now more targeted. By accurately locating crops, GPS enables greater automation of plant cultivation in the production fields. Just a few years ago we would not have even thought about this.

The same applies to the dosage of pesticides which can be applied with the help of a modern technology more targeted than ever. Therefore, health and safety at work has also entered a new phase now.

Disruptive innovations have also had an impact on “gene-editing” with the so-called CRISPR /CAS method. It is currently illegal, although this could be a mistake especially in the context of climate change and the associated invasion of quarantine pests.

If it was successful to modify the plants in such a way that they would be immune to pests, a real revolution in terms of plant protection, plant health and plant suitability could be initiated.

Further disruptive technologies are waiting in the wings. The idea to develop a plant app that analyzes the health and nutritional status of plants with only the help of a photograph can bring immense benefits and efficiency gains in our operations. There is still a lot to do here.

In other areas we are further along. Online retailers show us how new sales channels can be created and that perfecting logistics means that we are able to deliver plants to the end consumer much better than we did years ago.

Whether this is the silver bullet, in terms of quality, is another question. However, we must recognize that these methods must be established in the market and that they must be included in business projections.

There will surely be further revolutions in the cultivation of plants. What will always remain is our customers’ changing taste, the special characteristic that our product lives and the fact that it is indispensable for a healthy environment. In addition, even in 100 years, a tree will only be able to be produced according to its normal vegetation cycle. So, hopefully, despite climate change, we will have four growing seasons.

Jan Dieter Bruns

…is CEO of one of Germany’s leading plant nurseries, Bruns Pflanzen.