Sustainable Approaches to Agriculture Input Research & Development – Part 2

Sustainable Inputs for CEA


This is part two 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 and climate-smart agriculture being a very high priority.

R&D Sustainability Considerations #3: Geopolitics
The truth is that there are unforeseen phenomena that can occur that should always be factored in when trying to develop sustainable R&D processes. The war in Ukraine is a good example of that. Sanctions and restrictions on trade and the closing of borders had huge impacts on the world of agriculture inputs and consumables. The places that inputs were being manufactured were affected whereby people couldn't operate out of their existing facilities, nor were they able to get their raw materials from certain places anymore. Not only did geopolitical events such as this impact logistics and the ability to deliver products as per usual, but it also affected the cost of operations for many in the controlled environment agriculture industry. While it’s never possible to foresee the full extent of these obstacles, it's still important to try to factor in geopolitics. Despite it being largely unanticipated, plan for the worst case scenarios when you’re thinking through your sustainable R&D processes so that you are not left without backup options, which could have a detrimental effect on your sustainability.

R&D Sustainability Considerations #4: Raw Materials
The choice of your raw materials for the product that you’re manufacturing also very much affects other R&D sustainability considerations such as logistics and energy (read more about these in Part 1 [link] of this series). With synthetic mineral salts, a manufacturer can characterize and quantify in detail the cost and energy inputs related to extraction of the raw materials from mines, the building facilities, equipment and transportation related to manufacturing these synthetic mineral salts, overhead for management of the process at the facility, etc. Then, you can compare this to another scenario such as collecting and utilizing biomass from agricultural waste streams. The food waste, for example, would arrive at a facility where bioreactors would digest and process it. Again, there will be collection, transportation, processing, and labor overheads, among others. At the end of both of these processes, you would end up with the same product, namely a soluble nutrient for agricultural input, albeit by very different means and with differing logistical and cost scenarios (economically and environmentally).

In some cases, financially, the first option of synthetic mineral salts may look better on paper. But if you dive deeper, there are added benefits that may be hard to quantify, but in a sense, can be de-monetized through subsidies or grants, or even other benefits that are less obvious. For example, making rockwool involves mining gypsum, using extremely hot kilns that require huge amounts of energy to melt the stone, and then spinning it and shaping it into the rockwool products that are then shipped across the world. There are economic costs as well as environmental impacts. Another example is coco coir which is logistically intensive because raw materials come from several places at any given time of the process and they are highly inconsistent; they also have a very high salt content, and this requires rinsing, which involves using a lot of fresh water. From a sustainability standpoint, all of these examples show how you can quantify, characterize, and evaluate the sourcing of raw materials for your R&D, even though some options’ benefits may not be as obvious on the surface.