Growing in New Ways with Controlled Environment Agriculture

Growing in New Ways with Controlled Environment Agriculture

Farming practices are in constant development to find the best ways to feed everyone on the planet. While many innovations are found solely at large-scale farms, new methods of farming have emerged and expanded to bring farming into cities and other non-rural areas.

The idea of controlled environment agriculture, or CEA is not new, but it has been growing in popularity. Greenhouses are the prime example of CEA and have been used for centuries on farms and more recently in urban gardens. CEA builds off the concept of greenhouse farming, whereby temperature, moisture, lighting, and overall climate are controlled in a particular area to promote optimal plant growth. Vertical farming is another example of CEA and is popular in urban areas due to the small amount of horizontal space it requires. Farming practices like hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics are all considered CEA. In each of these CEA practices the climate is closely monitored and controlled, often in a small space, to give plants the resources they need to grow.

New Tech for Urban Farmers

The popularity of CEA is partially attributed to the potential environmental benefits it can have, which has led to greater economic investment and improved technology to expand this type of farming practice. These innovations draw from greenhouse technology relating to temperature and moisture control, but they may also involve redesigning classic greenhouse structure, such as in the example of vertical farming. In many cases, building materials are carefully selected to make the structure more energy-efficient; this can include choosing glass or plastic in a greenhouse that can block ultraviolet (UV) rays and allow for lighting control from within the building. Some structures may also include sensors that can be installed and programmed to signal if and when conditions are not optimal for the plants inside. Additionally, solar panels are often used in arid environments to power CEA structures, thus furthering the environmental benefits.

For CEA structures that use techniques like hydroponics, soil may be completely omitted from the operation. In its place, plants rest in a water-based nutrient-rich solution that contains everything the plants need to grow. Though it may seem like this type of solution would require a high amount of water, recycled water or captured rainwater can be used to reduce water usage. This is often the case in aquaponics, a system that grows plants using water from aquariums that raise aquatic animals. Vertical farming, hydroponics and aquaponics all also have a decreased need for pesticides, thus further reducing resource use. This can happen when the conditions within the CEA structure are optimal for plant growth and the environment outside the CEA cannot interact with the inside environment.

Any Food Can be Grown with CEA

Vertical farming began as a more efficient way to grow leafy greens, but greenhouses have been used for a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers for centuries. Leafy greens have been an attractive crop for CEA because of their generally high-water needs and a lower need for traditional farming environments. When grown in their traditional warm, dry outdoor climates, leafy greens production can readily deplete water. However with CEA, recycled water from aquaponics, or captured rainwater can be used, and significantly decreases water usage. While greens may have kickstarted the revolution, any crop can be grown using CEA techniques, if the environment is optimal for the targeted plant. Some of these growing methods may even have positive impacts on the nutrient quality of certain crops. However, scalability remains a looming factor for growing all fruits and vegetables in these settings.

Making CEA Accessible and Sustainable

Many consumers consider environmental sustainability a high priority when making food choices. A large advantage of CEA practices is the positive environmental impact due to the increased reliance on local and regional food systems, and a decreased need for cross-country transportation for fresh produce. In addition, CEA uses fewer resources; resources like water, soil, pesticides, and overall land usage. Despite these environmental advantages, vertical farming and other CEA methods have been criticized for their high up-front costs and additional expenses for maintenance. However, with the growing interest in environmentally friendly agriculture, some structures may be built for the purpose of community agriculture, where local community members can contribute to the growth of the crops without the extra expenses. Urban agriculture in general has shown to be beneficial to reducing food insecurity and improving access to nutritious foods. A huge advantage of CEA is that community members can grow food year-round in urban settings, thus making fresh fruits, vegetables and legumes ready and accessible anytime of the year.

Overall, CEA can have a powerful impact on local communities and the environment. Using new and innovative technology, CEA gives more people the ability to grow almost any fruit or vegetable in a small space, with fewer resources. This has great potential to positively impact both human and planetary health.

This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD.