In one of his Agrarian Essays, author and environmental activist Wendell Berry wrote, “I can think of no better form of involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening, improving a piece of the world, (while) producing something to eat.”

Well said, Mr. Berry.

Berry was joined by fellow author and nationally known cuisine artist James Beard, who calls food “our common ground, a universal experience.”

Moving crops indoors

Growing food is empowering, and we’ve gotten so good at it that in just a few generations that we’ve gone from nearly half of all Americans living on farms to just two percent. Sure, the big computer-guided combines still travel down straight lines in laser-leveled fields, but land today has many uses and arable land that was previously available is no longer farmable.

So, we’ve moved many crops indoors. We produce higher yields in an extended growing season while using less space by growing vertical and creating a smaller environmental footprint that uses less water and fewer pesticides. We do all this with the assumption it is better for the environment.

“One area we consider important in dealing with indoor growing is the ability to produce food in places previously thought to be unfarmable,” says Chaz Shelton, who founded Merchant’s Garden in Tucson, Arizona, in 2015.

He discovered an abandoned school and conducted an adaptive reuse of the vacant school property. He left his job in the healthcare field and turned zero agricultural experience into a thousand heads of produce—including lettuce, bok choy, basil, and other leafy crops—per day.

“We brought our green infrastructure inside the city and made a major reduction in our carbon footprint in the area of distribution. We have a lower impact on the climate because we use fewer fossil fuels in distributing our veggies. On average, our customers are less than four miles away as opposed to food products that are shipped from 1,500 miles away,” says Shelton.

Globally, statistics show that 30 percent of all carbon emissions can be linked to transporting food, while 70 percent of all freshwater usage is in agriculture.

Benefits of growing indoors

The benefits of locally indoor grown and sold edibles are several: carbon emissions and waste created by packaging and shipping are minimized; environment and pests can be controlled; and produce is fresher, more flavorful, and healthier.

As shortages of water, land, and labor impact agriculture’s future, interest in growing indoors is rapidly gaining in popularity, according to Dr. Merle Jensen, professor emeritus and initiator of the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.

With a professional lifetime of growing in inhospitable places and in innovative ways, Jensen agrees that “the environmental benefits of indoor growing are many. For instance, control of light, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide can be exact.”

He says he worries, however, about some of the less positive aspects of growing indoors, particularly the costs involved of establishing an under-glass farm “requiring specific design by highly skilled engineers working in close co-operation with plant scientists.” Because of the increasing technological complexity, Jensen is concerned that there are not enough players in the game, especially trained personnel familiar with applied whole plant research.

“We’re not prepared for the next agriculture revolution, the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) era,” he says. “For indoor systems to be economical, these closed systems require exactitude in the environment… uniform air distribution, correct day/night temperatures and humidity, uniformly enriched with CO2 throughout the plant canopy, and a failure anywhere along the line can result in complete crop loss.”

Despite some of the technical concerns, from an overall environmental benefit standpoint, growing in an indoor setting is beneficial on several fronts.

“Greenhouse hydroponics is an intensive form of agriculture that produces crops of high market quality over open-field production, and it does so with a less intrusive environmental footprint,” says Jensen. “Done conscientiously, CEA focuses on making the most out of water, energy, nutrients, space, and labor to produce a bountiful harvest.”

Controlled environment agriculture allows growers to save resources, reduce the threat of pests or disease, increase overall efficiency, and even recycle things such as water and nutrients. Newer technology like the Internet of Things and sensor arrays allow farmers to provide exact amounts of water and food for the plants remotely, reducing waste.

Jensen, one of the early proponents of drip irrigation, got into soilless technology in combination with greenhouse structures because of their precise control.

“Hydroponic culture in a protected environment produces high-density crop yield, a virtual indifference to seasonality and ambient temperature, minimal use of land area, and more efficient use of water and fertilizer,” he says.

So, whether you’re growing in a high hoop house or under a couple of hundred thousand square feet of glass with artificial lighting, mechanical ventilation, and the other bells and whistles, you’re benefiting the environment to a greater or lesser degree. Even a gardener with a small backyard veggie greenhouse reduces his personal footprint. Each item grown for personal consumption means less need for long-haul trucking and packaging, with commensurate carbon footprint reductions.

Greenhouses are ideal for organic gardening and are generally free from external parasites and pests that like to eat the greenery, thereby reducing, if not eliminating, the need for pesticides or chemical control methods. This reduces chemicals in the environment and residual chemicals on produce consumed by humans.

The first commercial greenhouse in the US was built in the 1940s. Since then, environmental benefits observed with CEA include less water and fertilizer use, the reduction of pesticides, and a 12-month growing season. It also requires just 10 percent of the land compared to traditional agriculture, and because the environment is controlled, it can employ land that was previously unproductive, such as a desert.