Controlled Environment Agriculture: The Key Benefits
Harnessing technology to grow crops is nothing new, but Controlled Environment Agriculture takes it to a whole new level. By automating everything from light to water, farmers are reaping a host of benefits and playing their role in the fight to achieve net-zero.
Indoor farms can create the exact environment that their crops need, with the right amount of light, heat, water and nutrients. As a result, the plants thrive.
Crops grown using Controlled Environment Agriculture are also much more reliable, as they’re not at the mercy of extremes of temperature and rainfall. There are no pests to eat the crops, and no bacteria or diseases to damage them.
In short, a vertical farmer can produce a much larger quantity of produce. And those crops can be grown all year around.
At present, only a few types of crops are grown in this way. However, Controlled Environment Agriculture is still in its infancy. We believe that, in the near future, we’ll start to see a much broader array of produce grown in this way.
And that’s where things really get exciting…
Before long, we may even be able to grow enough food in the UK (through a combination of traditional farming methods, glass houses and vertical farms) to feed our whole population.
Not all crops want to be molly-coddled. Some benefit from a bit of stress. Rocket, for instance, increases its bitterness under stress. That bitterness helps to protect it from animals, but actually appeals to us humans. In a controlled environment, a farmer can create just the right amount of pressure for the rocket to develop its full flavour.
Traditional farms often rely on seasonal workers, which could become increasingly difficult due to Brexit and coronavirus-related restrictions. Farms using Controlled Environment Agriculture tend to require much less hands-on time as a lot of the work is automated. As a result, they require fewer staff.
Benefits to the environment from Controlled Environment Agriculture
Reduction in transport-related emissions
At present, the UK imports 45% of our food. This has a massive impact in terms of CO2 emissions as food needs to be transported by land, air or sea. Controlled Environment Agriculture allows for crops to be grown in the UK that couldn’t normally survive in our climate. There’s no such thing as ‘seasonal produce’ with vertical farming, unless the farmer decides to focus on different crops at different times of the year.
As a result, crops can be grown locally, reducing the need for food to be flown or shipped in from abroad and reducing CO2 emissions in the process.
Less land required
Vertical farms have a far smaller footprint than traditional farms as they can easily grow 50 times the amount per square metre of land mass. We have a finite amount of land. Millions of hectares of rainforest are destroyed every year to make way for new plantations. And due to a growing global population, farmers will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 compared to 2010. With traditional farming, this could require an extra 593 million hectares of agricultural land. That's around twice the size of India.
Here in the UK, land is at a premium. As our own population increases, we will need more land for houses, schools, shops and other buildings. It’s crucial therefore, that the land we use to grow our food is fully maximised.
Reduction in pesticides and other chemicals
No pests means no pesticides. In a Controlled Environment Agriculture, there’s no need to tackle powdery mildew, rust, blight or other issues with chemicals. So the crops are, by nature, grown organically.
Less food waste
According to the United Nations, around one third of all food is wasted. Some of that waste occurs before the food even reaches a shop, due to issues around harvesting or transportation. With CEA, harvesting can be automated, leading to less waste. There’s also little to no waste from crops spoiling in the fields due to pests, diseases, droughts, floods and temperature extremes.
Plus, if the produce is destined to be eaten within the country in which it’s been produced, there’s less chance of it spoiling during transportation. Ocado is even aiming to build vertical farms next to some of its stores, so that produce can be on the shelves within an hour of being picked.
All crops need water. Crops grown using Controlled Environment Agriculture need up to 95% less water than traditional crops because none is wasted. Some vertical farms are now looking into using rainwater, but the majority will require mains water. Again, smart solutions can ensure that the crops only get as much water as they need.
Financial benefits of Controlled Environment Agriculture
There’s no getting around the fact that vertical farms come with steep start up costs. However, as discussed above, they can produce crops all year around, rain or shine, often of a better quality than traditional farms. And organic, local produce can be sold at a premium. Most vertical farmers focus on quick growing salad crops, or high value medical grade marijuana. Either way, they can bring in significant revenues. And vertical farms attract investment. According to the Global Grow Lights Market Report, The Food and Agriculture Innovation market is set to be worth $700 billion by 2030. $100 million has been invested in indoor farming by the Abu Dhabi government this year alone.
Addressing the elephant in the room…
Let’s take a look at that thorny issue of lighting. While it’s certainly true that vertical farms need LED lights in order to grow crops, those lights are becoming increasingly efficient. Yes, there’s a higher electricity demand to vertical farming, but that certainly doesn’t negate the other environmental benefits. To ensure a farm is as environmentally friendly as possible, it can run on green electricity. Even better, it could generate some of that power itself, saving both CO2 emissions and running costs.
Talk to us about your plans
To fully reap the benefits of vertical farming, it’s crucial to get the set-up right from day one. That’s where we come in. We can offer you a full turnkey solution, so that you too can grow more with less. Call us on 01332 410601 to find out more.