What is Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)?

Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) refers to the ability to control variables in the growing process of plants. It enables crops of any type to be grown anywhere at any time of the year irrespective of the climate outside, the length of the day and night, the amount of rainfall and many other factors that traditionally impact crop growth.

A commonly known controlled environment would be a greenhouse. The most prominent variables that are controlled inside greenhouses would be the amount of water and nutrients provided to the crops as well as the use of sunlight intensity to maintain temperature.

Digital Farming utilises the idea of total CEA as we grow indoors in vertical farm systems. This means we can control the light, water, nutrient content and even humidity to optimise crop growth and quality.

CEA makes great use of technology including sensors and automated systems that, for example, would deliver nutrients or water to the plants. However, the use of hi-tech technology adds to the cost of farming under CEA conditions. This is especially the case for total CEA as, for example, the energy required to power the LEDs is very high.

As the cost of production can be higher in comparison to more traditional methods of agriculture, it is expected that crop prices will be higher so that the farm can maintain profits and be sustainable.

On balance, the use of CEA creates huge opportunities for growing crops such as being able to achieve exceptional yields. This is a result of being able to perfectly control and tailor the variables needed for plant growth to a specific crop.

This controlled nature of a crop's environment means that a crop can flourish and, as a result, have a higher nutrient content, be larger, more regular in shape and even have a more vibrant colour than when grown under traditional agricultural methods.

Total CEA is an emerging and disruptive way of growing and has potential to continue to evolve in terms of scale, use, location and the types of business which utilise this approach. The environment in which the crop is grown is subject to tight regulation in terms of lighting levels and spectra (using LED lighting), temperature, humidity and CO2 levels to ensure a consistent and high yield of growth.

Digital Farming focusses on the challenges of scaling up total CEA into large farm installations in existing buildings. We are also developing digital control and sensing based technology using IoT systems for crop monitoring. We are aiming for this to be economically produced and so lead to future business opportunities.

Overall, it can be said that CEA has created, and will continue to create, new opportunities to grow crops in the UK which are difficult if not impossible to grow under external or even glasshouse conditions.