Controlled Environments Agriculture (CEA)

CEA has emerged in recent years to better define the high-tech approach to sustainably producing more plants indoors, to combat climate change and the growing shortage of green space. Much research has occurred around CEA to define the optimum condition required and the most efficient and cost-effective ways to implement CEA. Developing technologies are further enabling CEA to become even more sustainable and profitable.

CEA is essentially a branch of indoor farming and can be used to produce anything from fruits and vegetable like strawberries and peppers, to bedding plants and flowers. Such crops are cultivated in a CEA by monitoring and controlling all variables associated with plant growth. This includes, light exposure, temperature and humidity, CO2 levels and airflow.

Hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics, and soil cultivation are common cultivation methods within CEA. These methods are typically implemented within a greenhouse, or vertical farm format.

 

 

 

Method

Soil cultivation Using soil for cultivation. Soil content and type is controlled.
Hydroponics Involves growing plants without soil beds. Plant roots are instead emersed in nutrient infused water.
Aeroponics Growing plants without liquid or soil. Often implemented in chambers. Nutrient sprays will be distributed through the air.
Aquaponics Similar to hydroponics. Fish produce nutrient-rich wate to feed plants. PH and ammonia levels will be carefully monitored.

 

 

Format

Vertical farming Plants grown in vertical spaces using shelves and racks. Artificial light is implemented with controlled wavelengths and spectrums. All other environmental factors will also be controlled and monitored.
Greenhouses Constructed with glass or plastic ceilings. Natural sunlight is still applied to plants. Artificial lights may be used to supplement and extend the natural light. 

Benefits of CEA:

  • Plants can be better protected from wildlife, pests, and disease. Meaning that growers can obtain higher productivity levels and higher quality produce.
  • Due to reduced risks from wildlife and insects, there is no need for excessive use of pesticides. Which is better for both the environment and crops.
  • Within an indoor CEA, sensors can be utilised to monitor factors such as water levels. This increases control and makes optimum conditions easier to maintain. Other tools such as cameras, thermal imaging, hydrometers, and thermometers, can also be used to measure conditions. All data can be collected and adjusted using smart phone apps, enabling real-time and remote monitoring.
  • With the increased levels of control and accuracy in monitoring, resources such as energy and water can be effectively applied with less wastage. This helps minimise running costs.
  • Growing indoors means that farmers are not dependent on seasons, making all-year-round production possible.
  • Indoor growing also means farmers are not dependent on climate. In previous years certain crops have only been able to be grown in certain climates. Modern technologies and CEA mean this is no longer the case, different climate conditions can be recreated indoors. Plus, with the dangers of climate change, loss of crops to severe weather and extreme temperatures is eliminated. Less crop loss equates to less loss of profits for farmers.
  • CEA within urban areas reduces distance from farm to plate. Distribution time and costs can be reduced. Providing customers with fresher produce, whilst leaving a smaller carbon footprint from transportation costs.
  • Cultivating plants in urban areas can create local job opportunities, helping to boost local economies, as well as consumption. 

Challenges of CEA: Cost

  • Initial set up costs involved from equipment like sensors, hydroponic systems, lighting, and measurement tools can be more expensive than conventional open field cultivation equipment costs.
  • Labour costs for construction of CEA greenhouse or can be high. Additionally, staff working in the CEA must be trained to work and monitor the technologies and systems involved. This again can incur its own fees.
  • Ongoing running costs such as electricity. These can be one of the highest running costs, as lighting is a key factor to plant growth and particularly vital when indoors without natural sunlight. To provide sufficient lights for most plant types, artificial lights are needed to be operational for an average of 16 hours daily.

LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) in CEA:

The high running costs associated with CEA electricity bills have motivated the development of improved more cost-effective technologies. This is where LED technologies come in. High Pressure sodium lamps (HPS) have been a popular solution in horticultural lighting for years. But now, HPS is being superseded by LEDs. The innovation of new LED grow lights provides a great lighting solution for CEA, to maximize plant growth whilst minimising ongoing electricity bills.

LED grow lights provide key wavelengths to target plants, exactly when and where it is needed. Custom light spectrum can be implemented to optimally benefit different plants at certain stages of growth. LEDs can mimic, replace, extend, or supplement natural sunlight, so year-round production can be a reality. Additionally, LEDs solutions enable increased control, longer lifetimes, and increased efficiency. Energy savings of up to 80% can be achieved by implementing LED systems, as opposed to traditional light sources like HPS. LED grow lights enhance plant quality and growth rates, whilst minimising ongoing running costs.

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