Towards a Sustainable Lifecycle in Controlled Environment Agriculture

GLASE Webinar Series 2023

Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is the production of crops indoors with the ability to control environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, or light intensity. Worldwide, the CEA industry has been rapidly growing. Despite claims of its sustainability, the environmental impacts of CEA have not been adequately reviewed. This research studies CEA sustainability by following the flow of the CEA supply chain. Starting upstream in the supply chain, common CEA production inputs were examined, focusing on stonewool substrate. Emissions from stonewool manufacturing were calculated and compared to EPA air quality standards, finding large and small particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) emitted in concentrations above what the EPA considers “hazardous”, CO emitted in “hazardous” concentrations, NO2 in “unhealthy” concentrations, and SO2 in concentrations considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups”.

Moving downstream in the CEA supply chain, typical wastes generated at CEA facilities were identified, quantified, and analyzed for sustainability by calculating emissions resulting from current waste disposal practices, establishing a baseline. Baseline waste emissions were compared to possible best- and worst-case disposal practices, highlighting potential for improvement. Compared to the baseline, cardboard waste had the biggest improvement potential. Recycling all cardboard could reduce CEA waste emissions by approximately 77.72 MT of CO2e per year per 1,000,000 heads of lettuce produced, or 211.93 MT of CO2e per year per acre of growing space. To put CEA sustainability into perspective, CEA emissions data was compared to emissions from other daily societal activities. The study then examined the consumer preference component of the CEA supply chain, focusing on consumer valuation of CEA products and associated qualities (using an example 5-ounce clamshell of lettuce), determining NYC consumers’ willingness to pay for individual product characteristics, namely price, indoor- or field-grown, organic or pesticide-free labeling, and location grown. Responses were analyzed across all respondents and among multiple demographic sub-categories. Respondents were most willing to pay for lettuce which was: field-grown, locally-grown (especially when NYC-grown), and packaged with a label of “organic” or “pesticide-free”. Recommendations for the CEA industry and strategies to communicate products and sustainability are provided.