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What’s the difference between CEA and soil-grown produce?
November 8, 2023
Joe Swartz


For better or for worse, when most people think about Hydroponics and Controlled Environment Agriculture, one of the first things they think about is technology.

All farming uses technology to optimize results, of course. The hoe is a technology, as is an ox-drawn plow. Irrigation is a technology. This is to say nothing about the latest generation of AI-driven, remote controlled tractors and machines becoming increasingly prevalent in soil farming. 

Humans have always used innovative technologies to help feed themselves and their communities. But for many understandable reasons, CEA technology still feels very new, eye-catching, and in many ways foreign to a lot of people. This creates strong reactions. In most of North America and Europe, many consumers have an affinity for food that feels especially “natural” to them, and CEA-grown food can be viewed as a curiosity. On the other hand, I’ve worked with growers in several East-Asian countries who have told me that their consumers are thrilled by the idea of eating “high-tech” food.

I’ve written at length in the past about the fact that the primary goal of all farming, CEA or otherwise, must be to meet the needs of the plant. Our goal is not to pursue technology for technology’s sake. As our industry has grown around a specific family of technologies, it is really important for us to clearly understand the ways that these technologies impact the produce that consumers are eating.

Today, I’m going to share what CEA-grown produce shares in common with soil produce, as well as the differences. The techniques we use in CEA certainly deviate from soil practices in many ways, but what impact does this have? Let’s take a look!

Similarities Between CEA and Soil Produce

When you’re growing a head of lettuce or any other plant, there are ultimately just three factors that will determine what its nutritional content and flavor profile will be: Genetics, Nutritional Environment, and Climate Environment. CEA technology allows us to create conditions in all three of these areas that are an exact duplicate of a soil-grown counterpart. In essence, a head of lettuce is a head of lettuce, and with proper conditions, there is no biological difference between one grown in soil and one grown in CEA.

    • Genetics – A plant’s genetics are the properties and parameters inherent in the seed. If you are planting a romaine lettuce seed, there is a genetic blueprint that the plant itself wants to follow. Other factors can limit the plant from reaching its potential, but short of genetic modification, neither soil nor CEA can cause a plant to “exceed” its genetic potential.
    • Nutrient Environment – So, one set of factors that can impact a plants ability to grow itself is the availability of nutrients, beneficial microbes, good water, and clean air. CEA technology allows all of these to be delivered to a plant anywhere in the world in optimized amounts. In this arena, there is no difference between an optimized CEA operation and the best, most fertile soil on the planet.
    • Climate Environment – Similarly, a plant can be affected by the climate in which it is growing. The amount of light, the temperature, and the relative humidity all affect the plant’s inherent genetic processes. Again, CEA allows growers to mimic any climate in the world, producing optimal conditions.

Not every CEA operation prioritizes the needs of the plant. In some ways, the reputation of our industry has been hindered by growers who have prioritized other things, and brought inferior plants to market, creating impressions that hydroponic-grown produce is inherently less flavorful or nutritious. Thankfully, that reputation is already changing thanks to the work of growers who are exposing their communities to the truth of how delicious CEA-grown produce can really be. At a biological level, considering nutrition and taste, there is no difference between the best CEA crops and the best soil crops.

Differences Between CEA and Soil Produce

If the plants themselves are functionally identical, are there even any differences? Yes. Things like optimization, sustainability, availability, and cleanliness are all a part of the process. These differences have everything to do with the benefits of CEA technology, and they are always worth repeating.

    • Optimization – Soil growers have no control over a suboptimal climate, climate events, or even changes in their local climate. They can do the best to adjust, but they can never fully optimize to meet the genetic needs of the plant. CEA can.
    • Sustainability – Plants grown via CEA may look and taste the same, but the process of growing them requires 90% less water, fewer nutrients, and leads to no fertilizer runoff. 
    • Availability – A key difference with hydroponic crops is that they can be available fresh, year round, with no need for off years or a fallow period. Climate control also makes produce available locally in places where it is otherwise difficult to grow. For many people living near CEA farms, the difference is simply that fresh produce is available where it otherwise would not be!
    • Cleanliness – As we examined a few weeks ago, despite the prestige of the “organic” label, most organic produce still uses pesticides, whereas most CEA produce does not. CEA allows for pest control without the use of pesticides, encourages cleanliness, and promotes traceability.

Some soil advocates may continue to (unscientifically) claim that there is something irreplaceable about soil. You can claim that the indefinable qualities of terroir allows plants to reach a pinnacle untouchable by CEA. Well we can point to differences too, ones that favor CEA.

We have not and will not ever make the claim that CEA is the only right solution for growing produce. We believe that it is one of many viable and valuable methods for growing food. What we will claim fiercely is that our products are grown with the exact same natural processes by which all plants have ever been grown – simply optimized using some incredible and useful technologies.

The CEA brand is strong, and growing stronger. More and more people are familiar with the concept of hydroponic-grown food. People think of CEA and they think of technology. That’s fine. As farmers, it is up to us to spread the word and make sure they know exactly what that technology actually does.

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