The International Congress on Controlled Environment Agriculture took place in Panama May 17-19 where many of the thought leaders and influencers met to discuss the theories and trends involved in indoor and greenhouse growing. Here are some highlights of the three-day event:

Closed Plant Production System: The plant factory

In the day one keynote, Dr. Toyoki Kozai, president of Chiba University in Japan, discussed his work in constructing closed plant production systems (CPPS). Known as the “Father of the Japanese Plant Factory,” Kozai has been leading efforts in greenhouse and controlled environment agriculture for commercial production.

When speaking of the key principals for CPPS management, Kozai touched upon four pillars that included the need for resource use efficiency, cost performance, having a sustainable plan and the need to introduce advanced, but inexpensive technologies.

Kozai also explained the pros and cons to CPPS:

  • Advantages: High controllability of environments, high productivity/land area, and water/fertilizer and pesticide savings
  • Disadvantages: Needs high operation skills and sophisticated software, needs high investment per land area, and sustainable production is not immediately achieved

“In theory, the CPPS can achieve the highest yield and quality of functional plants with use of minimum amounts of resources, resulting in minimum costs and minimum emissions of pollutants,” he said. “However, the yield and quality are much lower than their potentials, and resources supplied are inefficiently used, resulting in high production cost.”

Kozai also briefly discussed the use of scale and automation into the CPPS, but concluded that although the technology is fairly new, there is still more to learn.

“The CPPS will bring about high productivity and quality with minimum resource consumption and environmental pollutant emission, and will become a key component in urban agriculture to solve the food, environment and social tri-lemma issues,” he said. “However, we are still at the entrance of CPPS technology, so that we need to move forward toward for sustainable CPPS and societies.”

Dr. Ricardo Hernandez

Dr. Ricardo Hernandez

Stat of the show

During his presentation on seeding production and technology, Dr. Ricardo Hernandez, assistant professor of horticultural sciences at North Carolina State University, shared a few statistics about hydroponic crop farming:

  • Over a five-year period (2011-2016), 2,347 growing businesses yielded revenue of more than $821 million and reached a profit at $73.1 million with $26.7 million in exports.
  • Annual growth of through the period reached 4.5 percent. Projected annual growth for the next four years is around 1 percent.
  • Key External Drivers: Price of vegetables; Per capita fruit and vegetables consumption, healthy eating index; and trade-weighted index
  • Leading indoor crops:

Tomatoes: 50.4 percent

Other foods: 23.1 percent

Cucumbers: 9.7 percent

Fresh herbs: 8.9 percent

Lettuce: 7 percent

Peppers: 0.8 percent

Strawberries: 0.1 percent

Source: IBISWorld

Dr. Don Wilkerson

Dr. Don Wilkerson

Quality Managing the Plant

One of the keywords that have been bantered about at ICCEA was “plant.” Not the plant crop, but as in the factory plant. Dr. Don Wilkerson, professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, explained the importance of quality management in the greenhouse/plant factory. Although many of the speakers at ICCEA spoke of plant factories, Wilkerson stressed that the objective in a controlled environmental agriculture setting to perform “more like a manufacturer and less like a factory plant factory.”

Wilkerson went to cover the basics such as the difference between quality assurance and quality control:

  • Quality Assurance: The maintenance of a desired level of quality in a service or product, especially by means of attention to every stage of the process of delivery or production.
  • Quality Control: A system of maintaining standards in manufactured products by testing a sample of the output against the specification.

Wilkerson also connected the dots between quality control and pest control. “Every crop is susceptible to insects and diseases,” he said. “Millions of dollars are spent to make the perfect environment for plants, but it will also be the perfect environment for pests.”

Wilkerson described some of the methods he and his team have used to battle indoor pests like limiting access, clean seed and stock, screens, air curtains, filtration and ozone water treatment.