Charting Q1 Trends: Where Efficiency meets Sustainability in Controlled Environment Agriculture

Published on 
April 29, 2024

By Skytree's Fred van Veldhoven

In the first quarter of this year, I've traveled across both Europe and North America immersing myself in the world of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) through various events, wearing different hats – as a speaker, an exhibitor, and an eager attendee, on behalf of Skytree and its pioneering Direct Air Capture solutions for CO2 supply to CEA.

Rather than focusing solely on our company's endeavors, I'm keen to share insights gleaned from these experiences. This article aims to shed light on the overarching priorities within indoor agriculture, and how collectively, both companies and the CEA sector can carve the future of sustainable food production. The allure of indoor farming lies in its ability to exert precise control over environmental variables like temperature, humidity, and light; this management minimizes its reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, and fostering a more ecologically balanced agricultural system to meet growing food demands and weather inconsistencies. 

The first, and most positive indicator, in all my discussions was the growth of the CEA sector. The Netherlands has some of the largest greenhouses in the world, at 10,000+ hectares at the turn of the century. The enthusiasm is infectious globally. Total Investments in CEA “Start ups” across North America, Europe and UK alone have reached 7bn USD with 65% of it directed towards vertical farms. A “start up” in this context is a high-tech greenhouse or a vertical farm.

"Sustainability in vertical farming and greenhouses is a critical focus for us in modern farming practices," remarks David Lynn (name changed), a greenhouse owner and grower who shared his insights with me at this year's Indoor Ag-Con event in Las Vegas. However, there is a caveat.  “Energy efficiency and operational optimization are key waypoints on the journey toward complete sustainability."

Therefore growth alone is not what is striking, but the need for sustainable practices with energy efficiency topping the charts. According to a new report from Guidehouse Insights, the market for energy efficient indoor farming technology is expected to grow from $2.1 billion in revenue in 2023 to $3.3 billion in 2032, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.3%. However lessons learned over recent years have shown it is vital to balance operational costs and revenue earned, with the former sometimes posing challenges.

Energy efficiency emerges as a cornerstone in the quest for sustainable indoor agriculture. By leveraging renewable energy forms and onsite CO2 supply, growers can significantly reduce their carbon footprint while ensuring long-term viability. Furthermore, advancements in lighting technologies, such as LED systems tailored to plant-specific spectra, promise to enhance efficiency while minimizing energy consumption. Moreover, operational efficiency emerges as the backbone for CEA’s growth towards sustainable solutions and technologies.

Streamlining processes, optimizing resource utilization, and embracing data-driven decision-making are paramount. From automated climate control systems to precision irrigation technologies, innovations abound, empowering growers to maximize yields while minimizing inputs.

And this isn’t merely the macro perspective on a large greenhouse, but zooming into specifics for both greenhouses and vertical farms. While there are quite a few products and technologies out there, the gap growers unanimously agree upon, lies in Artificial Intelligence, or in the absence of it.

Presently, all that is available requires and reflects upon historicity. The new generation of AI, however, should be forward-looking, not just historical predictors of trends, and great algorithms need diverse and reliable data, including weather forecasts, energy prices, leaf temperature sensors, and more of the typical temperature, light, and humidity type sensors than before. 

As Tisha Livingston, CEO of Infinite Acres, aptly noted at a CEA event, "You can't improve on something you're not measuring." The integration of AI and data-driven insights holds the key to optimizing every aspect of CEA operations, from irrigation to climate control, and beyond.

Reflecting on this year’s controlled environment agriculture (CEA) landscape so far, one resounding truth echoes through the halls of innovation – sustainability is not merely a buzzword but an imperative guiding the future of food production. The enthusiasm and growth witnessed in the CEA sector are undeniably infectious, with investments pouring into high-tech greenhouses and vertical farms globally. Yet, it is crucial to recognize that growth in size alone is insufficient; it requires a blend of innovation, efficiency, and environmental stewardship. By embracing this ethos, we can cultivate not just crops but a future where food production is resilient, regenerative, and truly sustainable for generations to come.

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