Chinese scientists are exposing crops to powerful electric fields in an attempt to make them grow faster without using chemical pesticides or fertilizers
Inside the huge commercial greenhouse on the outskirts of Beijing, lettuces seat in neat rows while light gently pours through the glass above. In the air there is a soft buzz and an intense feeling as if a thunderstorm is on the way. The high-voltage electrical wiring strung over the crops is a sign that this is not an ordinary growing space.
This place may be different, but it is far from unique. In recent years, greenhouses like these have sprung up in China, part of a government-backed project to increase crop yields, warming them in invisible electric fields radiating from power lines. From cucumbers to radishes, the results are apparently incredible. Liu Binjiang, the project’s lead scientist states: “The overall quality is excellent. We are entering a golden age for this technology.”
Using electricity to stimulate plant growth by exposing plants to an electric field is an old controversial idea. Electroculture has been tested in Europe many decades ago and has proven to be desirable, but the results were too inconsistent to be useful. The mechanism was mysterious too: no one knew how or why electric fields could stimulate growth.
Finnish physicist Karl Selim Lemström was the one that introduced the world to the idea of electroculture back in the 20th century. He visited the Arctic region in 1902 and found that some trees grew faster under aurora borealis than those in milder climates, further south. He attributed the phenomenon of natural electrical conditions produced by aurora, also known as the northern lights. He then performed a series of experiments in the laboratory to prove this and even wrote a book to promote his hypothesis.
Then British physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, a key inventor in the development of radio, read the book and reportedly achieved a 24 to 39 per cent increase in wheat grain yield in an eight-hectare experiment. This caught the attention of governments and British and American authorities each commissioned separate studies on electroculture in the early 20th century. The British findings were positive, while the American results were negative.
Public interest in electroculture revived with the rise of organic farming and the Chinese government started funding experiments in the technique in 1990.
He Feng, senior technician of Yufa Jingnan Vegetable Production and Sales, one of Beijing’s largest vegetable producers, said the company had taken part in the programme since 2014 and the results were “very satisfactory”. In just two years the electrified vegetables had brought in extra revenue of nearly 1.2 million yuan (US$175,000). “We are still running the equipment, which consumes very little power,” he stated.