What technological advancements are being made in controlled environment agriculture?

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During the International Meeting on Controlled Environment Technology and Use, Chris Higgins (left), president at Hort Americas, moderated a panel discussion on Indoor Agriculture Economic Viability. Photo courtesy of Hort Americas

The International Meeting on Controlled Environment Technology and Use gave representatives from academia and the CEA industry an opportunity to discuss the advancements and challenges facing researchers and growers.

After a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic the 6th International Meeting on Controlled Environment Technology and Use was held in September in Tucson, Ariz. Hosted by the University of Arizona, the meeting was organized by North Central Extension & Research Activity–101 (NCERA-101) in collaboration with UK Controlled Environment Users’ Group (UK-CEUG) and Australasian Controlled Environment Working Group (ACEWG). NCERA-101 is a USDA committee organized to assist plant scientists understand how to use controlled environment technology effectively and consistently.

“It was exciting for the University of Arizona to welcome and host our colleagues at this industry event,” said Murat Kacira, past chair of NCERA-101 committee and director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona. “The international meeting brought together 215 participants from 12 countries and five continents for three days. For the NCERA annual meetings there is usually about 100-120 participants.

Murat Kacira, past chair of NCERA-101 committee and director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona, along with the university hosted 215 participants at the 6th International Meeting on Controlled Environment Technology and Use.
Photo by Rosemary Brandt, College of Ag Life Sciences

“Every four years NCERA host’s an international meeting which includes our international members or collaborating working groups from the U.K., Australia and Canada. We also now have collaborations from Mexico. The international meetings have been rotating mainly between the U.S., U.K. and Australia. We now have some industry representatives and colleagues in Mexico who will be hosting the next international meeting there in 2025.”

Although NCERA has not had an official collaboration membership from Japan or South Korea, Murat said this has been discussed and there is an opportunity to extend the collaborations with NCERA’s Asian colleagues as well.

“I believe we will have that in place for upcoming years as part of our international collaborations for the meetings,” he said. “In regards to inviting speakers from those countries, that will definitely happen.”

Technology’s relationship with energy, labor efficiency

The international meeting hosted 20 speakers, two keynote speakers as part of the technical program and three panel discussions on indoor agriculture.

“This was a great opportunity for attendees to hear from not only researchers, but also those who are practicing in real world settings from commercial companies,” Murat said. “Speakers included industry participants, consultants, start-up companies and those who have been in the business for a long time, including company CEOs and CSOs. We also had students, our young minds, who participated.

“There were discussions about research with implications to commercial settings. There were also presentations by representatives from companies discussing what is applicable, what is practical and what can be incorporated into commercial operations. For example, Marc van Iersel at the University of Georgia talked about optimizing light efficiency in controlled environments from plant physiology to engineering. He presented direct applications currently happening in commercial settings. Another presentation from Jeff Jia at Heliospectra discussed from science to commercial applications focusing on light use efficiency.”

Peter Ling, associate professor at Ohio State University, discussed the emerging sensing techniques for controlled environment plant production during the International Meeting on Controlled Environment Technology and Use.
Photo courtesy of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, Univ. of Ariz.

Murat said some of the heavily emphasized topics were the optimal use of energy, energy costs and labor costs.

“This included what are the technologies, what are the techniques, what are the approaches to consider to better manage resources such as electrical energy as well to address the challenges with labor through automation and environmental control applications,” he said. “Another subject that was emphasized was related to benchmarking. What is the terminology that should be used towards benchmarking sustainability and optimizing resource-use efficiency? There is a need towards defining benchmarking and terminology related to sustainability.

“There was also a discussion about data sharing. Where is the data coming from? What is the quality of that data? And how is this data helping to better implement technologies in commercial settings.”

The relationship between light and plant physiology

Murat said a primary focus of the lighting sessions was on the relationship between light and plant physiology.

“Topics discussed included what are the variables that significantly impact the physiological characteristics of plants,” he said. “What factors does attention need to be paid to and how can those factors be controlled in order to manage the quality and yield in controlled environments production? What are the requirements for quality and yield when it comes to controlled environments?

“This starts with defining a plant’s physiological requirements and then identifying the strategies or techniques around light intensity, quality, as well as other significant variables. Light interacts with other variables, it does not stand alone. When light intensity and quality are changed that triggers other environmental variables as well. These variables are connected so how can they be better used?”

Quality may mean different things to researchers and between different commercial operations.

“Quality measures or attributes for the industry vs. the quality measures for a grower can be quite different,” Murat said. “How can technology be used to achieve these quality attributes not only from an industry perspective, but also from a community-desired perspective? And how does achieving this quality relate to economics? How do growers manage the economics and cost factors to target, achieve and maintain these quality attributes?”

Attendees at the International Meeting on Controlled Environment Technology and Use had the opportunity to tour the vertical farm research facility at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.
Photo courtesy of Rosemary Brandt, College of Ag and Life Sciences, and the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, Univ. of Ariz.

Future collaborations

Murat was particularly excited about the number of students who participated in the meeting

“There was great participation from graduate students, both from U.S. institutions and internationally,” he said. “They asked questions and participated in speaker session discussions. There was also a segment during the poster session when they were able to discuss their own research projects.”

On the final day of the meeting during the tours of the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center the university’s graduate students were the tour leaders giving them the opportunity to present detailed information about their own research activities.

“Also, during the meeting, opportunities were discussed and collaborations were formed,” Murat said “These collaborations were between academia and industry members as well as academia and academia, and industry and industry. These will help us to move innovation and technology forward.

“During future meetings we will have more opportunity to talk about and fine tune what is benchmarking and what are its requirements. Also, we will be able determine what sustainability measures and terminologies need to be considered. Another topic that was emphasized was how does the industry and academia continue to keep educating the next generation of controlled environment researchers, industry-related employees and commercial growers.”

For more: Murat Kacira, University of Arizona, Biosystems Engineering Department; mkacira@arizona.edu; http://ceac.arizona.edu/.

This article is property of Urban Ag News and was written by David Kuack, a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas.

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