Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA):
How Indoor Farming Supports Land Conservation
Plants need space to grow. Regardless of whether food comes from an open field, a greenhouse, or an indoor facility, it is ultimately connected to the land on which it’s produced. Moreover, unlike many other inputs that plants need – like sunlight and water – land is not a renewable resource.
Although it is estimated that only 30% of arable land worldwide is currently being farmed, the vast majority of the farmland still available is located in Africa and South America—meaning that expansion of local and national crop production is drastically limited for many countries. Additionally, out of all of this global land, 33% has been moderately to severely degraded due to climate change and unsustainable agricultural practices. We must therefore turn towards new solutions and strategies that preserve and make good use of our farmable areas.
At FreshBox Farms, one such solution to land consumption that we’re implementing is the usage of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). CEA encompasses a combination of indoor farming, hydroponics, and vertical agriculture technologies. These technologies allow us to grow crops while minimizing our land requirements. Let’s take a closer look at the struggles being faced within field farming, to better compare it to CEA, when it comes to land conservation.
Traditional Farming and Land Use:
What comes to mind when you hear the word, “Farm”? You might imagine an urban community plot, a mom-and-pop parcel with cows and a red barn, or the massive Midwest field that splays out for acres. None of these pictures is inaccurate, but when we’re discussing large-scale food production, the last is likely the closest to reality. Over the past several decades, enormous agribusinesses have consolidated more and more acreage, with the midpoint cropland acreage ballooning from 589 acres in 1982 to a huge 1,105 acres in 2007, an 88% increase. And, at the end of the day, most of the food that we eat in the United States does derive from this type of large-scale agricultural producer.
As such, there are a few aspects of a conventional farm’s land usage patterns that are worth noting. These include growing horizontally, over utilizing farmland, polluting other viable sources of land, and neglecting best practices for land conservation. To offer insight into how these aspects differ from the beneficial qualities of CEA methods, let’s discuss each and then explain the value of CEA growing.
The most obvious land-related observation about conventional farms is that they generally grow crops horizontally, and in one layer in the ground. Subsequently, their growing space is limited to the square footage present in one plane.
To visualize this constraint, imagine a company constructing office space for its employees in a crowded city. If the number of employees in this office will be low, then it likely won’t be an issue to build a small, single floor space that holds everyone. However, if it’s a large company with many employees, then the office building will either need to stretch out quite wide to accommodate the workers, taking up a large area and requiring expensive real estate, or it will be built upwards, like a skyscraper, placing the workers on many separate floors to reduce the overall footprint.
Though the complexities of urban real estate are obviously understated here, the end result with agriculture is essentially similar. Growing a vast number of crops has traditionally necessitated that farms expand their fields horizontally. In areas where the amount of available agricultural space is limited, land therefore becomes a crucial limiting factor to the economic and environmental viability of building a farm that can produce more food.
Exhaustion of Farm Land
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for conventional farms to over utilize farmland. Overutilization entails instances in which arable land is handled to a point where crops can no longer easily be grown there.
This occurs because the agriculture industry has historically gravitated towards unsustainable planting, harvesting, and maintenance patterns – designed to maximize yield at all costs. One such pattern is the widespread application of synthetic fertilizers, which temporarily provide the chemicals needed for plants to grow, while ultimately leeching nutrients from the ground and degrading topsoil. Other negligent practices, such as mono-crop planting or neglecting to rotate crop fields and animal grazing schedules have also contributed to an operating methodology that is based on extraction, rather than the renewal and ongoing health of the land being farmed.
Subsequently, when we possess a limited and nonrenewable resource that provides us with something so valuable as nutritious food, you would believe that we would want to maintain it more responsibly.
Neglecting Best Practices for Land Conservation
To combat the historical patterns of land abuse that have been systemically implemented throughout the agricultural industry, several organizations, including the USDA and EPA, have published Agricultural Best Management Practices for Land and Water Conservation (BPMs). BPMs lay out the strategies and routines that farmers can use to preserve the sustainability of their land, in order to ensure healthy farms for years to come.
BPMs include some of the following practices: conservation tillage, crop nutrient management, grazing management, and erosion and sediment control, among other behaviors. Primarily, these actions are aimed at keeping nutrients in place, protecting surrounding areas from fertilizer and pesticide runoff, conserving soil, and minimizing the impact of raising animals on nearby land. Although BPMs are encouraged, and even incentivized by the government, there are minimal requirements to enact such practices.
Erosion & Sediment Control
Crop Nutrient Management
Once again, we’re left wondering—what will be the catalyst for enacting change, short of the inevitable inability to effectively grow food if these actions are not taken in the near future.
The Role of Urbanization, Pollution, and Climate Change on Farmable Land
Even land that isn’t currently being farmed has its growing potential threatened by other human caused factors. Urbanization, for instance, is one concern. As population centers grow, and surrounding areas become developed, areas which may have been able to be used for agriculture are now being used to support these residences. The impact of this outward expansion has not been cited as a significant source of land reduction each year, but what could be significant is the rising demand for food in areas that may not have the capacity to scale local agricultural expansion in tandem.
Pollution is yet another facet that endangers our dwindling supply of land. Traditional agriculture requires a healthy soil composition. When chemical plants, Contained Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), or even other farms allow their waste to spread onto nearby plots or the waterways that farms draw from, arable land might be irreparably damaged for a lifetime or longer.
Lastly, climate change from greenhouse gas emissions also generates imminent threats to our farmland. As global temperatures rise, water tables that feed into our agricultural land will increasingly either dry out, causing drought, or be salinized by rising sea levels. A number of other factors including acidified soils, wind erosion, soil structure and organic matter levels all also contribute to potential issues of wide-scale land degradation.
As we’ve seen, land degradation is a serious issue. Yet, the demand for crops is simultaneously projected to increase 100-110% from 2005 and 2050 to account for the growing world population. Given this, and our discussed factors that contribute to the decline of available growing space, it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of land.
FreshBox Farms and Our Dedication to Conserving Land
FreshBox Farms grows using Controlled Environment Agriculture—a unique approach to food production that enables us to optimize our land usage. In fact, our farm requires only 1% of the land that an equivalent sized conventional field-farm would. Isn’t that extraordinary, considering what we now know?
To summarize how the technology that we and other CEA growers use is relevant to land conservation, we will briefly explain how our methods provide a rebuttal to each of the land-use challenges faced by conventional farmers. For a more detailed explanation about the particulars of CEA, be sure to read our article on the subject, “Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA): More Than Hydroponics.”
Notably, the vertical nature of our farms is again one of the most obvious and important aspects of our ability to maximize land usage. Within each of our modular growing units, plants are grown on shelves, or racks, which allow us to grow in multiple planes that are stacked atop one another. This means that the available square footage of growing space in the footprint of one vertical farm can be multiples greater than that of a horizontal farm. And this quality translates especially well to urban regions, where horizontal space is difficult to come by.
Another crucial difference in our methodology is that we utilize hydroponics to raise our crops. Because of this, our plants do not require soil to grow. Unlike conventional agriculture, where farmers are subject to the negative impacts of soil erosion, pollution, urban encroachment, and other mentioned items, CEA growers do not encounter those same challenges. Instead, we are able to precisely control and monitor all of the inputs (nutrients, water quality, lighting, climate, etc…) required for the plant to grow, as well as all of the outputs (waste products) of our entire farming process. Subsequently, we can build a farm and produce food in areas where other growers would not be able to, due to soil erosion or pollution, since we are not constrained by the same limiting factors.
Lastly, because we are concerned with having as small an environmental impact as possible, we take steps to ensure that our plants uptake all of the nutrients we provide them with, so that any effluent waste is clean and non-damaging to our surrounding land – something that’s much more difficult for field farmers to implement. We also stay up-to-date on best practices within the industry, so that as the technology improves, and we expand our operations, we always minimize our required resource consumption.