As the global population is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by the year 2050, the demand to sustainably produce healthy, affordable fruits and vegetables is more pressing than ever. Challenges to food production with a rapidly growing global population include ecosystem degradation, changing climate conditions, and water and land scarcity. These issues demand the evolution of integrated and innovative food production technologies and researchers at the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) are poised to take on the challenge.
The University of Arizona's CEAC will join a multi-university team of researchers from Michigan State University, Purdue University and The Ohio State University, with the goal of improving the quality, quantity, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of indoor vertical farming production. The initiative, called Optimizing Indoor Agriculture, or OptimIA, is funded by both a $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Research Initiative and by more than 25 industry leaders, whose matching financial support brings the project total to $5.4 million.
Biosystems Engineering Professor and CEAC Director, Dr. Murat Kacira, will lead the research efforts on the project at the University of Arizona. Commenting on rising global populations and the need for sustainably produced crops, Kacira says "Controlled environmental agriculture is one piece of the puzzle, combining plant science, engineering and computer-controlled production systems to enhance the yield and quality of our crops and optimize resource use. It provides unprecedented opportunities for integrated production systems, where resources can be recycled and reused with greatest use efficiencies."
While indoor farming, also known as vertical farming, significantly enhances land, water and nutrient use efficiency — and allows crops to be grown locally in stacked layers under controlled climate conditions — startup capital and operating expenses can be prohibitive, particularly with respect to lighting and air conditioning systems. To better serve this burgeoning industry, researchers hope to integrate the indoor vertical farmers within the specialty-crop segment of agriculture, with the ultimate goal of increasing sustainability and profitability. To do that, the multi-university team plans to assess variable environmental conditions, such as humidity, air movement, temperature, light and carbon dioxide concentration, and then provide a more complete picture of best practices for indoor farming stakeholders.