This is part one of a series on sustainable approaches to agriculture input research & development (R&D) from the lens of our Senior Director of Research & Development, JC Chidiac. He will be diving into the process of developing inputs for controlled environment agriculture in particular, which includes fertilizers and substrates, with sustainability being a top priority.
Three Aspects of Sustainabilty
A good place to start is by defining sustainability and the different aspects it has. My definition of sustainability is the ability to sustain something long term. In other words, creating a scenario where you're able to continue doing what you're doing, without being interrupted or experiencing interference or disruption, while still hedging your risks.
There are multiple types of sustainability. The most obvious one is environmental sustainability, ensuring that whatever you're doing is being done in such a way that will not have negative impacts on the natural environment.
The second type is business or economic sustainability. It's the type of sustainability that involves being profitable. In other words, your venture is economically sustainable if it generates enough revenue to fund its continuation. Even non-profits have to have economic sustainability, some way or somehow. They have to be attractive to the sources that sustain them.
The third one that is often overlooked is human sustainability. Is the process that's being built sustainable from a human perspective. In other words, does it create a good experience? Are work processes ergonomic and safe, attractive, stimulating and fulfilling? Or are they not? If they are, companies will experience a lot of success that’s sustained long term. Whereas if they're not, companies will not be able to retain people. For example, with injuries, people will tend to quit, leading to a high turnover. This is why it's very important to have human sustainability at the forefront as well.
R&D Sustainability Considerations #1: Logistics
Taking all of the three aspects of sustainability into consideration, we now dive into the first R&D sustainability consideration: logistics. There's a lot of angles to think about in terms of logistics necessary to support any kind of product manufacturing. Within R&D, it's important to keep logistics in mind because you're researching and developing products that need to be sourced, manufactured and delivered. Logistics is the science of making things happen. This means figuring out where things are going to come from, how they're going to reach their destination, where they're going, and how they're going to be created, etc. Things that affect logistics include how a product’s raw materials are sourced. You want to prioritize selection of raw materials that minimize the complexity and cost of your logistics, while being as compatible as possible with lean processes.
With R&D locations, we also cannot stress enough how important it is to choose your location wisely. If it’s an option, make it as close as possible to where you're going to be operating - within reason of course. What we mean by this is that as you get into more rural areas, land becomes cheaper; but then you may have very complex and fragile logistics to deal with. Ultimately, your thought process for R&D should be determined to ensure that your logistics considerations are aligned with what matters to all of your stakeholders.
R&D Sustainability Considerations #2: Utilities
Next up are utilities, whereby the role of energy in R&D plays a crucial part. Energy is required for the production of almost anything and everything. When designing your R&D processes, indoor farms have a choice in how much energy is being used. For example, when thinking through R&D locations, our team at Re-Nuble considered energy effects. Questions we asked ourselves were, “How much energy is being used in this prospective location versus other options?” and “What type of energy source would be utilized?”. Ultimately, we want to take advantage of existing markets, industries, consumer goods, commodities, and energy grids in a way that supports the goal of developing climate-smart agriculture.
With energy, you can plan energy costs into your R&D budget in a way where you may be able to even consider creating your own energy grid. By considering these types of utility costs, an indoor farm’s R&D could allow for even more control of energy production so that no matter happens, power generation is not interrupted, and energy is supplied in a sustainable manner. The recent developments in solar, wind, tidal and hydroelectric energy have opened up an ocean of possibilities for companies such as indoor farms. Geothermal energy in particular is very impressive because it expands the potential to become less dependent on traditional sources of energy and therefore less vulnerable to disruptions and more sustainable in R&D operations.