The food world is moving to Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) because it offers a higher level of control over production conditions in a closed structure. Growing plants inside a greenhouse or grow room allows the grower to maintain the proper light, carbon dioxide, temperature, humidity, water, pH levels, and nutrients to maximize the production of crops year-round. The costs of such an operation may be higher but it can reduce or eliminate the variability and risk that has characterized agriculture since its inception. While these are all selling points in and of themselves, climate change and water issues make CEA inevitable.
In the United States the industry is still in formation but greenhouse crop output is expanding and now makes a nearly $20 billion contributiosoaring: AeroFarms, founded in 2011, raised $40 million in 2017 and reportedly opened the largest indoor farm in the world in Newark, New Jersey. Plenty, Inc., based out of South San Francisco, raised over $200 million in 2017. For urban areas, vertical farms have expanded and there were 100 startups in the space in 2018.
Changing conditions have added to the growth:
- Advances in LED lighting have been one of the most important advances for improving economic viability. LED is much more energy efficient and does not add heat to the growing environment. LED systems can alter light spectrums to suit specific crops, adding to output. Using artificial lighting also increases crop production and allows many plants to be grown and produce year-round by creating an optimum 12-month calendar.
- Water issues: Traditional agricultural practices take water for granted. Irrigation systems in modern farms can be inefficient and wasteful. In fact, over 90% of the water used in traditional agriculture simply evaporates. Hydroponic facilities use a fraction of the water a traditional farm would use.
- Organic agriculture: In 2017, the US National Organic Standards Board voted to allow hydroponically grown produce to be labeled as certified organic.
- Controlled environment agriculture allows a grower to reduce the incidences of pests or disease, increase overall efficiency, save resources, and even recycle things such as water or nutrients.
- Innovations in vertical farming in urban areas allows growers to reduce the length of the supply chain, growing food near to consumers. Gotham Greens operates 8 greenhouses, all in population dense areas.
- Transparency. Consumers want to know the source and conditions from which the food they eat comes. CEA can do this very effectively.
- Environmentally, CEA is much less impactful on areas surrounding production than traditional farms because inputs are controlled and isolated from the environment.
The world leader in CEA is the Netherlands and frankly it’s not even close. A smallish, densely populated country, it is the 2nd largest exporter of agricultural products in the world. Where they really shine is in flowers and vegetables and their greenhouse and hydroponic systems are considered the finest in the world. Though global population growth is slowing, it is still very important to consider how we are going to feed the planet in the future. The Dutch show the way; others are paying attention.