Controlled environment agriculture, or CEA, is an innovative farming method that applies technology toward food production. CEA intends to provide the most protection and offer the best growing conditions for plants from planting to harvest. Growing in greenhouses or other enclosed structures makes it ideal for urban farming and using abandoned buildings as grow houses.
In CEA, innovative farming techniques like hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, and vertical farming provide the necessary water and nutrients for crops. These methods use fewer resources and are much more efficient than traditional agriculture. Combining CEA with these methods optimizes resources like water, energy, space, capital, and labor.
CEA manages several controlled variables to ensure optimal yield and quality. These include temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, light, nutrient concentration, and pH, and pest populations. CEA facilities can be as simple as a plastic film on field grown crops or as advanced as an automated closed-loop system where AI administers variables.
Any plant that produced through conventional farming can be grown in a CEA facility, though only crops that are profitable to growers are selected for planting. CEA opens the door for food producers who want to grow seasonal produce year-round without the use of chemicals and preservatives, a plus for consumers. Removing outside environmental conditions eliminates opportunities for contamination and disease to harm crops.
CEA is useful for research, especially for testing variables that could improve systems. Isolating various parts of food production while other aspects remain the same or testing tinted glass versus plain glass to gauge photosynthesis are just two ways that scientists can study CEA facilities and further innovative agriculture research.
According to a 2011 study conducted by Science Illustrated, CEA was shown to “increase efficiency, reduce pests and diseases and save resources.” The study went on to state that while the initial investment and building of CEA facilities can be costly, it is more cost-efficient than traditional farming because scientists saw “up to 20 times as much high-end, pesticide-free produce as a similar-sized plot of soil.”
The initial cost of setting up of CEA facilities is the main drawback to this method of farming. The price of electricity can sometimes overwhelm new startups that lack the capital to support the indoor farm. However, advancements in LEDs have proven immensely beneficial to counter this problem and will soon make it much more affordable to run CEA systems.
Dependence on electricity could also pose a problem during power outages. Plants that grow in indoor farms require regular misting to obtain the nutrients needed to survive. Losing power could mean losing an entire crop.
While greenhouses and other CEA facilities do rely on electricity, that one variable is far easier to control and manage than traditional farms that are subject to independent factors like climate, weather, and pests. A backup generator or some other system would be a quick, temporary solution for CEA facilities during an outage. As technology keeps developing, it will become easier to minimize reliance on electricity and the cost of creating an indoor farm.