Attendees at the United Fresh Convention in Chicago were given a preview of the world of controlled environment agriculture (CEA). The process, which is in forms of aeroponics, aquaponics and more notably, hydroponics, allows growers to control elements of the environment such as light and shade, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide.

“The goal is to maximize or optimize the yield of whatever plant you’re trying to grow whether it’s lettuce or tomatoes,” Kale Harbick of Cornell University noted. “If you control all those variables properly, you’re going to see much increased yield compared you can produce in a field where you can control anything.”

Harbick is part of a CEA research group at Cornell that focuses on modeling energy consumption in greenhouses and plant factories. He also the CEO of Greenhouse Logic, an ag-related consulting firm.

Harbick stressed the importance of energy by providing an analogy of the amount of electricity used in a greenhouse versus other structures. He told the audience that a 45-acre greenhouse in Ithaca, New York that produces 139 million heads of lettuce can use as much energy as the Pentagon if all the lights were left on for a year.

Virai Puri, CEO of New York-based CEA-operation Gotham Greens, said that consumers are looking for local foods that are fresh and CEAs are rapidly providing that path for those shoppers.

“Consumers want produce that’s grown closer to home that reflects all the attributes of locally grown food which are a more nutritious product with less transportation inputs,” he said. “Also, there is a sense of connecting with their food.”

Puri noted that with these factors coupled with the urban consumers’ desire to wean off processed foods, the environment is ripe for the awareness of CEAs.

“Controlled environment agriculture provides an opportunity to use resources more efficiently in a more environmentally sustainable way,” he said. “That was the concept when we came up with Gotham Greens. If done right, you can grow 20-30 times more than the conventional production.”

Nate Laurell, CEO of Bedford Park, Illinois-based FarmedHere, noted that with CEAs are allowing the concept of farming to become denser over time.

“If you go back to the 1930s, you could grow 30 bushels on an acre. Today, it’s 200 bushels. We have done that while decreasing the land that’s used over time,” he said. “If you can take the seasonality out of growing and you can get 8-10 more crop cycles a year than you would in the field, then you can increase the footprint of agriculture by the factor of 100. The technology will get to the point where we can do in one acre what we could do in 100 acres in the field.”

By controlling the environment, Laurell said, CEA growers will be able to change the makeup of plant crops as well as the taste.

“For example, strawberries: If you can change the light spectrum, you can change the sugar content of that strawberry to be twice as sweet,” he said. “You can change the Vitamin C content of a tomato just by changing the lighting recipe. This technology has the ability to change the taste of crops and variables of other hard-to-grow crops.”

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