What exactly is Controlled Environment Agriculture?

Terms such as “indoor,” “protected,” and “controlled” are used interchangeably in reference to controlled environment agriculture (CEA) operations and application methods that limit unwanted changes to ambient environmental conditions.

CEA is best compared to conventional open-field agriculture (OFA), often heavily constrained by scaled operations and available profit margins, and which offer limited opportunities to innovate. Seasonal changes define and govern windows of cultivation potential throughout the year, while most of the farmer’s decisions are limited by climate and weather conditions. Around the world, extreme weather events are occurring with more frequency and intensity. Large, chaotic fluctuations in temperature and precipitation can no longer be predicted based on patterns observed historically or even seasonally. Protected horticulture that utilizes greenhouses and commercial or industrial buildings for CEA offers significant opportunities to improve resource-use efficiency and system resiliency relative to OFA.

There are many different technologies, applications, and corresponding terminologies used to describe different horticulture techniques. CEA applications may involve the use of greenhouses, plasticulture (including hoop houses and high tunnels), plant factories, food factories, urban industrial farms, vertical farms, warehouse farms, growth chambers, and any number of combinations and variations of the myriad approaches to commercial hydroponics, aeroponics, or aquaponics. The choice of name or terminology used to describe or differentiate a facility may depend on the facility’s location, its size and scope, its level of technical sophistication, the market(s) it’s intended to serve, or the ever-changing fancies of corporate marketing, branding, and media hype.

For the sake of clarity and comprehension, a particular term may be preferred (or used to differentiate in the market), but when it comes to many of the technologies deployed in CEA, there is not a huge advantage to considering these categories as unique in a deeply meaningful way. This may change over time with greater specialization.