“Don’t regulate farmers to death” are the words CEO & Founder of WayBeyond Darryn Keiller uses when discussing sustainability in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). CEA businesses frequently claim that their operations are “sustainable” because they inherently use land and water more efficiently than traditional agriculture operations. "Yet, it's rare that we see tangible evidence (numbers) supporting these claims. Plus, the tradeoffs of CEA systems are often left unaddressed," says Darryn.
"For instance, while vertical farms can insulate agriculture from the mounting effects of climate change and reduce food miles, those that are tied to the grid for their electricity needs have high carbon footprints. Vertical farming production methods contribute more to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than products grown in the field, even accounting for shipping the produce long distances to most markets."
"This is the primary reason why you’re likely to read articles criticizing CEA’s growth," he concludes.
“When it comes to CEA operators, where do they fit in this [global] sustainability strategy? One of the key issues is that there's not a lot of data that's available to understand the impacts of different types of CEA farms. There's not a lot of standards related to that. And there's also a lot of greenwashing that exists”, adds Henry Gordon-Smith, Founder & CEO at Agritecture.
This begs the question: how sustainable is the CEA industry really?
"The only way to address these criticisms and answer this overwhelming question honestly is to know where we stand today. And for that, we need the backing of data."
Agritecture & WayBeyond recently launched the 2021 Global CEA Census to do precisely this. "With a focus on growers’ perspectives on sustainability and how they measure specific ESG (environmental, social, and governance) outcomes, this census will help us identify what the CEA industry is doing right and where it needs to step up its game."
This is the third year the census has run with increasing participation each year from greenhouse, indoor vertical, and tunnel house growers, making it the most comprehensive global survey of CEA operations.
“What we've seen with the pandemic is a heightened awareness and sensitivity around sustainable practices in general. There's a more pervasive awareness in the world, across different industries. Now, you've got big players weighing in because they understand the tangible connection with their food supply. And I think that's because people kept running out of food in 2020. All the issues around the meat processing plants in the US, and leafy greens supply in other markets just made it so visceral and real for everybody that they've had to get serious about it," Darryn Keiller, Chief Executive Officer & Founder at WayBeyond, concludes.