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Indoor agriculture - Can it feed the world?

Lucy Starley
October 25, 2021
β€’
4 min read
Salad leaves being grown in an indoor agrciulture hydroponics system
Salad leaves being grown in an indoor agrciulture hydroponics system
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The future of agriculture is ever-changing…

And in the bid to feed the world by 2050 there are a number of key challenges, but also exciting opportunities.

With an ever-rising global population, climate change, food security and working out how to produce enough nutrient-dense food for the masses are high priorities for the agriculture sector.

These colossal world issues present many challenges for farmers and bring increased pressure to produce higher yields in record times and often for the lowest cost, all whilst maintaining a high-quality standard. But as well as the challenges, these issues bring with them exciting opportunities for integrating technological advancements and new ways of working that ease pressure, whilst maintaining the importance of keeping age-old agricultural knowledge and skills alive.

Current threats to traditional agriculture practices

Although it’s one of the oldest industries known to man, conventional agriculture is starting to struggle in the face of climate change. Extreme weather patterns, water scarcity and soil erosion are just a few of the ways that climate change is wreaking havoc for the agriculture industry, and humanity as a whole.

Traditional outdoor agricultural practices require large amounts of land, consistent machinery and vehicle use, and high volumes of inputs such as water, nutrients and fertilisers.

When combined, the unpredictability of weather events, pest outbreaks and changing consumer habits makes it difficult for conventional farmers and growers to maintain their crops and profitability whilst also avoiding food and resource wastage.

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How could Controlled Environment Agriculture help?

Many experts within the field are turning their attention to Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) in search of solutions and opportunities for commercial agriculture developments.

CEA is an umbrella term for a number of different indoor growing methods such as Hydroponics, Aquaponics and Vertical Farming. All of these methods are designed to produce high yields in less space and use more environmentally friendly working practices. The result is more nutrient-dense food, less resource use, greater food security and a more robust supply chain.

Indoor growing, and particularly CEA tackles many of the issues that face conventional agriculture practices, for example, land use, vehicle use and water use can all be reduced through the ability to grow in smaller spaces with resource-efficient growing methods.

Farmers and growers that adopt CEA methods are now able to produce food all year round because they are at lower risk of being subjected to the issues that come with extreme weather conditions. The development of water and soil efficient growing methods also provides solutions to the mounting issues of water scarcity, soil erosion, energy usage and transportation.

Community development

By embracing CEA methods there is the opportunity to bring indoor growing operations into urban areas, thereby providing nutrient-dense food and employment opportunities into underserved communities.

This has huge benefits economically, but also in terms of raising social welfare and public health. CEA growing methods lend themselves to any sort of indoor environment provided that there is access to vital services such as water and electricity. This means that old industrial areas could be transformed into thriving hives of activity again which can rejuvenate urban areas at fairly low costs without the need for major new building developments.

There are some challenges here though. Bringing CEA into urban environments is reliant on community buy-in, access to vital services and implementing socially responsible business models that are designed to be long lasting and mutually beneficial to all the stakeholders involved.

Improved pest management

One of the biggest challenges that all farmers and growers battle with is pest management.

Pest outbreaks threaten to decimate entire grow cycles which can spell irrevocable disaster for both small scale and larger commercial growing enterprises. There are a huge number of pest prevention methods and treatments used within the agriculture sector, but many of them have high costs both financially and environmentally.

One of the opportunities that indoor growing brings is an increased ability to prevent and manage pest outbreaks by controlling all aspects of the growing environment.

Growing indoors means that farmers can have a much clearer understanding of the environmental conditions experienced by their crops, and therefore a greater chance of spotting and treating pest outbreaks efficiently.

When indoor growers adopt technological advancements through the use of smart agri-sensors such as Grow Sensors they have an even better chance of gaining a timely and detailed understanding of their growing operation which further reduces the risks posed by pest outbreaks or changes to environmental conditions.

Availability of crops

To date, most commercial indoor farms have focused on the production of leafy greens, salad crops and herbs. In order for CEA to become a real industry-wide solution to the issues of food security and supply chain robustness, the variety of crops produced is going to need to develop significantly.

To achieve greater crop diversity, indoor growing operations will need to initiate plant breeding programs and develop production methods that have a wider scope than those currently in use. Plant breeding brings a number of opportunities such as optimising the nutritional content and flavour traits of crops. The challenge here is that this can be an expensive and time-consuming process that involves a significant amount of experimentation to achieve desired results.

Opportunities for collaboration

The future of indoor growing provides many opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations. CEA growing methods are reliant on a combination of expertise in the fields of horticulture, technology, green energy and engineering as well as tapping into the hospitality and retail industries through the development of new cuisines.

The success of CEA practices hinges on the availability and accessibility of energy as well as high-level technical knowledge and skills; a shortage of these or any supply issues in the energy sector could stop the development of CEA enterprises fairly quickly.

But if these challenges can be addressed or mitigated then the opportunities for learning and skill-sharing are vast. Collaboration is going to be a key requirement in the global fight against climate change, and the industries that can build good interdisciplinary relationships are going to be the strongest.

Takeaways

Climate change is the biggest threat that the agricultural industry faces, but there are solutions.

The future of food production is reliant on the agricultural industry embracing technological advancements and new ways of working such as CEA practices.

Growing indoors has a multitude of challenges, but also opportunities to improve economic, social, health and environmental issues in long-lasting ways.

The need for collaboration has never been more important. The future of food production has a wide variety of learning opportunities through skill sharing and knowledge transfer between industries.

The solutions posed by indoor agriculture are achievable and realistic throughout the agricultural industry from hobby farmers to large scale commercial operations.

Positive change and development can happen quickly if we are ready to face the challenges and embrace the opportunities that the future of indoor agriculture has in store.

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Lucy Starley
October 25, 2021
β€’
4 min read

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