Controlled Environment Agriculture’s Need for Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) – Pt 1: Why?

Controlled Environment Agriculture’s Need for Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) – Pt 1: Why?

Controlled Environment Agriculture Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

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This is part 1 of Indoor Farming’s Need for Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs). Watch for our upcoming Part 2.

One of the most compelling reasons for indoor farming is its ability to reduce water usage compared to traditional, soil-based cultivation practices. The debate then usually transitions to the enormous energy usage as a byproduct of these systems. However, if we drill down deeper, we’ll realize the various environmental impacts that exist.

For an indoor farm to accurately capture its impact, we are huge proponents of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs). When done properly, it gives growers a holistic view of its strengths as well as gaps. First and foremost though, let’s breakdown what a LCA really is.

According to the Rochester Institute of Technology, “An LCA is a systematic analysis of environmental impact over the course of the entire life cycle of a product, material, process, or other measurable activity. LCA models the environmental implications of the many interacting systems that make up industrial production. When accurately performed, it can provide valuable data that decision-makers can use in support of sustainability initiatives.”

LCAs for indoor farms can cover anything from material extraction (eg: do your nutrients come from unsustainable practices such as the huge carbon emitting practice of peat extraction, or does it come from something renewable or circular), to the actual production process of growing crops, to packaging and distribution of your crops, to even the end use of your crops as well as any waste recovery. It is extensive and covers the entire spectrum of a company’s business at different points of a product’s lifespan.

Now, an indoor farm may ask, “But what’s in it for me if I spend all this money carrying out an LCA?”. In our opinion, it’s a powerful way to identify any operational gaps, which can then lead to bottom line improvements. Furthermore, LCAs usually reflect a company’s business model.

In this context, if an indoor farm adheres to a linear production model, this will be accounted for, which could lead to a higher carbon footprint. This is because at many stages of the production cycle, not only are resources wasted, but additional factors like energy usage, travel footprint, and plastic waste, could lead to a loss in efficiency as well as savings.

Linear business indoor farm
A linear production model which can be applied to an indoor farm’s business model

A situation that most indoor farms face which is linear is the end use of their packaging. While many have interest in packaging that’s compostable, usually the biodegradable or recyclable option is preferred due to price competitiveness as well as access to the material. However, once the crops are consumed, these plastic packaging usually go straight to landfills.

On the other hand, for indoor farms that employ a closed-loop agriculture model, the end-of-life phase of their production actually gets fed back into a new life cycle. In other words, resources are re-used over and over again till its full value has been fulfilled. This process could go on forever for some products, whereas other products may have a limited re-use capability. Irrespective, the carbon footprint will reduce significantly as indoor farms begin to think critically about resource efficiency. For example, when farms encounter algae growth in their system, entire water reservoirs are not just flushed out, but also filled with cleaning chemicals which then flows into our water system as wastewater. It creates a dual environmental impact: chemical pollution as well as wastage of water resources.

Circular business indoor farm
A circular production method which can help indoor farms identify any operational inefficiencies and advance climate-smart agriculture.

In part 2 of this series, we’ll share some examples of indoor farms or projects that have used LCAs to assess the environmental footprint of crop production. If you’d like to learn more about how to transition your indoor farm towards a closed-loop agriculture system, get in touch with us here.

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