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Rural CEA is a ‘critical’ part of our food systems, says new report from EIT

by Graeme Hammer

Discussions about indoor agriculture — also often referred to as controlled environment agriculture (CEA) — frequently focus on how vertical farms can boost local food production in or near urban settings. A new report from pan-European collective EIT Food, exclusively shown to AFN, notes that while this is certainly true, there is also an increasing amount of greenhouse production in rural and semi-rural settings. The latter set of systems is “advanced and a critical part of our food system.”

The report highlights findings from a consultation EIT did in collaboration with Innovate UK KTN. The findings specifically focus on North-West European countries Iceland, Ireland, and the UK. These are island nations where the climate is not suitable for year-round outdoor food production, so CEA systems enable these regions to produce out-of-season crops.

EIT’s definition for CEA includes “a broad range of semi- and fully-closed systems, from greenhouses through to vertical farms.” The report stresses that many of those interviewed for it were “keen to point out that CEA should not refer exclusively to ‘high-tech’ production.” Greenhouses and even hoop houses have long been considered part of the CEA landscape.

With more rural producers looking to add or replace traditional outdoor farming with CEA operations, there’s a compelling case for more greenhouses in these settings, says EIT.


The case for rural CEA

The report lists several benefits to locating CEA systems in rural or semi-rural locations in the North-West Europe region:

  • There is potential to co-locate CEA systems with renewable energy production facilities. EIT highlights renewable energy sources as critical to CEA ever achieving net-zero ambitions. However, the report also notes that urban centers often don’t have the space for co-location that more rural settings can offer. 
  • Rural greenhouses can produce a wider selection of local fresh vegetables than urban vertical farms. While the case for growing a commodity like grain is “weak” in North-West Europe, the region imports a huge amount of produce such as strawberries.
  • CEA can complement existing outdoor farming operations. Many outdoor producers already have the elements required for CEA production: growing skills, equipment, customers, and buildings, to name a few. There is also infrastructure that can be repurposed to hold CEA systems.
  • CEA sites could be used to propagate starter plants that later get transplanted to fields. The report calls out potato seedlings and strawberry starter plants as two examples with lots of potential here. 
  • CEA could assist surrounding communities. “In remote communities where fresh produce tends to be expensive and difficult to source, particularly in winter, CEA systems can be used to grow produce out of season or to propagate starter plants that can then be grown in local polytunnels or fields, reducing the need for long-distance shipments,” notes the report. 

Challenges and encouragement

The biggest barrier to more CEA in rural parts of North-West Europe is accessibility to labor, key transportation routes and markets.

  • For example, the CEA supply chain is still in its early days, and many companies only sell directly to consumers rather than merchants. Lack of access to key roads and rails could intensify this issue for some.
  • Finding individuals with the skillsets to run indoor grow systems may also be a challenge. EIT notes that knowledge and technology transfer between regions “could improve overall update in North-West Europe.”
  • One other notable barrier is getting rural outdoor producers to consider adding CEA to their operations. With few examples to look to, these growers may be wary of this relatively new industry.

Despite these challenges and others, EIT’s general outlook for rural CEA is largely positive. Many of the barriers here are a reflection of an early-stage industry and will likely change with time:

“As the community grows, it is reasonable to expect that the pool of experienced labour will also grow and that supply chains will become more developed,” notes the report. “There are also steps that can be taken in the near-future (e.g. organisation of rural vertical farms into cooperatives) that could address some of the potential barriers identified.”

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