Use of controlled environments for crop growth is increasing in the UK. However, we are still way behind countries such as the USA and Japan, which have more fully embraced this modern method of farming. CHAP’s IHCEA (Innovation Hub for Controlled Environment Agriculture) in partnership with Liberty Produce, has been designed to improve the cultivation of indoor and protected crops by driving innovations that reduce operational costs and improve the yields.
In this blog, CHAP Research Assistant Emma Campbell looks at the benefits of a controlled environment agriculture (CEA) versus more traditional farming methods.
1 Water scarcity
Water is an incredibly valuable resource, with only 2.5% of water on earth being fresh water, and only 0.3% of that water readily available for human use. The rest is frozen or stored as groundwater. At this moment, 40% of the global population live in water stressed areas, yet these are the areas seeing the steepest population growth, thus placing more stress on the need for available water. Currently 70% of water usage is for agricultural irrigation. With increasing demand for water, we simply cannot go on using such large volumes of water for irrigation purposes. Although it is possible to drill for ground water, this is now being done intensively and is destroying the natural aquifers which aid groundwater transmission, emphasizing the need for a shift in the way water is used agriculturally.
Water is recycled within the IHCEA so no water is wasted. Any water that is not used by the plants for growth is filtered, sterilized and re-used for the next batch of crops. As no water is wasted the volume required to grow a crop in the IHCEA is dramatically lower than growing outdoors.
2 Climate and seasonality
Current agriculture is weather and season dependent: this means there is a limited window of time for crop production. Farmers can only produce certain crops within a given season and this can be further hampered by unpredictable weather conditions. A particularly hot summer can cause drought, killing crops while at the other extreme excessive rain can result in the spread of certain diseases or lead to crops rotting in the ground.
Seasonality ceases to be a problem when crops are grown in a controlled environment. Ideal plant growth conditions (water, light, heat, humidity, nutrients) can be replicated all year round meaning that crop production is no longer subject to adverse weather conditions. With weather patterns becoming increasingly erratic, the ability to control conditions in the farmers and crops favour is undoubtedly a major benefit of the IHCEA.
3 Pest control
The benefit of growing in a controlled environment is that crops are not exposed to the pests and diseases that they would normally be if grown outside. This means that there is no need to spray, pesticides, insecticides, or herbicides. The problems of run-off polluting waterways from these controls is well known, as is the fact that some have been found to accumulate in foodstuffs for human consumption. Many of these chemical controls are used prophylactically, whether disease is present or not, further adding to environmental pollution.
Growth in the IHCEA does not require the use of any chemical controls, making it an incredibly environmentally efficient way to grow.
4 Tailored nutrition
When growing crops outdoors, nutrition comes in the form of fertilizers which are sprayed on the plants. As with chemical controls, fertilizer run-off can occur, which may lead to pollution of water bodies and the production of algal blooms. In addition, the production of fertilizers results in a massive carbon footprint and many countries are set to run out of their own domestic supplies within the next generation.
In the IHCEA, nutrition is tailored specifically to each individual crop, meaning that the crop will taste as good as (if not better) than counterparts grown outdoors. There is no need for spraying mass quantities of fertilizer: the exact nutritional requirements of the crops are determined, and the exact amount given. This means no waste of resources or pollution of the environment.
5 Energy and cost-efficient
The running costs for any business are always a concern and energy efficiency can signify the difference between profit and loss for farmers. In modern agriculture, farmers constantly have to work out how to increase yield and reduce costs. Once the cost of machinery and labour is added, it becomes very expensive.
LED lights are used in the IHCEA to give the plants their preferred light spectra. LEDs are obviously energy efficient but the Liberty Produce lights used in the IHCEA take energy efficiency a step further. Rather than using air to cool the lights, the Folia Nova lights use water for cooling resulting in 80% of heat generated being transferred away in water rather than air. This is considerably more cost effective than using air cooling, and the water is recycled for use again.
Vertical farming methods and technologies are being developed within the IHCEA to improve energy efficiency and reduce environmental impact as far as possible. It is hoped that in time we may be able to add solar panels and use biofuels or biological waste products to ensure a completely environmentally friendly method of farming.
Emma Campbell works at the IHCEA capability, based at the James Hutton Institute, in partnership with Liberty Produce. The James Hutton Institute is one of the Scottish Government’s main research providers in environmental, crop and food science and has a major role in the Scottish knowledge economy. Liberty Produce is a farming technology company, enabling the growth of local produce year-round, using a fully-controlled, industry-leading, indoor vertical farming system.
CHAP’s CEA solution has a range of capabilities, all working to expand the boundaries of what can be grown in controlled environments, with a focus on commercial viability. For more information, go to Advanced Glasshouse, IHCEA, NLG Centre, and Vertical Farming Development Centre, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org