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Nurturing sustainability: How Controlled Environmental Agriculture is combating food insecurity

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Special to the Daily Californian

SEPTEMBER 01, 2023

The growing controlled environmental agriculture (CEA) sector is actively confronting the world’s food insecurities, leading agricultural practices in a socially and environmentally conscious direction.

Currently, an increase in extreme weather events and lack of farmland are exacerbating the challenge of feeding the world’s expanding population. Food deserts are plaguing America’s low-income neighborhoods, leaving many families without nutritious produce. Furthermore, nearly 10% of the world’s population remains hungry.

Fortunately, CEA companies like AeroFarms, CubicFarm Systems and Gotham Greens are overturning agricultural burdens by implementing technology-based solutions to indoor farming.

Often referred to as vertical farming, CEA is synonymous with its wielding of stacked or layered design. While traditional farms have to expand horizontally in search of higher crop yield, CEA allows for maximized production in a limited space.

Pre-existing land use practices employ the overharvesting and overgrazing of land to meet food chain demands. This system has proven to be counter-productive. Hyperfocus on maximum yield leads to soil degradation, and eventually desertification, leaving much-needed fertile land unusable by stripping it of its nutrients. With nearly one-third of global soils already having been degraded, CEA’s effective land-use approach is the key to protecting the currently limited soil quality.

The degradation of soil has shown overarching effects on our food’s nutritional quality. A comparative study reported a decline in various nutrients in crops, including protein, calcium and phosphorus. This minimized nutritional density in produce raises concern, especially as more and more people adopt plant-based diets. 

CEA provides a solution to downward nutritional trends by cultivating fresh and nourishing produce. A study published inScientia Horticulturae, which looked at phytonutrient content yield in plants grown indoors, showed that the quality of produce could be improved to better consumer health.

CEA operations can manipulate temperature, humidity, irrigation and lighting with unique precision to harvest the desired product during any season, allowing for the harvesting of crops at peak freshness. Vertical farming opens possibilities of genetic modifications to amplify crops’ flavor and vitamin levels, but also adapt them to suit various dietary needs.

When harvested with minimal processing and pesticides, crops are circulated locally rather than exported. As global food imports have reached a record high of $2 trillion, there is a push to shop for local produce in order to limit the miles that food has to travel. Thus, CEA farms can adapt to an increasingly globalized consumer pallet by cultivating in-demand produce, all while lowering transportation emissions.

Rising global emissions are one factor driving the increase in global temperatures, which positively correlate with extreme weather events. A severe weather event of specific concern to California has been drought, which continues to strain the state’s available freshwater supply.

Though the recent storms have almost eradicated Califonia’s extreme drought, preserving and conserving our freshwater sources remains essential to the state’s agricultural sector. The long, persistent dry conditions brought on by the past drought forced many farms to tap into groundwater sources for irrigation. 

A spike in groundwater extraction is concerning because it leads to dry wells where the land can cave in. On the other hand, many CEA farms employ hydroponic drip irrigation techniques and recycle water through UV filters to cut down on freshwater needs. For example, vertical farms like AeroFarms use 95% less water than traditional soil-farming methods.

In addition to its environmental benefits, CEA allows for the reduction of labor-intensive farm work through advancements in mechanization. 

CEA ventures are sometimes viewed primarily as technology companies rather than farms simply because of their emphasis on mechanization. By constantly aiming to minimize the frequency of human contact with each crop, many companies inadvertently escalate production costs. Thus, an avenue for possible criticism of CEA could be the resulting elimination of employment opportunities.  

A balanced approach is necessary as CEA companies continue to pioneer innovations in engineering technology: companies should employ local people rather than eradicate their labor. Moreover, by harnessing the potential of CEA to create employment in low-income areas, we can address nutritional disparities while simultaneously minimizing production costs. 

Lowering costs remains essential to the future of sustainable farming. Resulting in a high initial investment value for many companies, rising energy costs remain an inhibiting factor to the spread of CEA. 

While pushing forth old practices continues to bring us two steps back, the CEA sector is actively taking steps toward sustainability and innovation. In order to end harmful farming practices and feed growing populations, CEA is dependent on evolving to reduce its costs and expand its reach. 

But such innovation takes time. Meanwhile, California residents can do their part by assessing their consumer habits. Shopping locally when possible and only buying in-season produce are both steps in the right direction. Though sustainably grown food can be on the expensive side, those who have the means should invest in their health and the planet to future-proof our food systems. 

Urvi Kulkarni is a high school student interested in food systems and sustainability. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

SEPTEMBER 01, 2023