Updated: Nov 10, 2021
After a shock in oil prices led to a devaluation of national currencies in several economies of the Caspian Region in 2015, regional governments shifted their focus to economic development through agriculture. Many countries in the Caspian and Central Asia still need to progress in traditional agricultural production, such as improving farmers’ access to inputs and machinery. In order to make progress sustainable, the Caspian Region must also embrace innovative technologies. One such innovation is the emerging field of Controlled-Environment Agriculture, or CEA.
Controlled-Environment Agriculture facilities are appearing in abandoned shipping containers, nondescript industrial buildings, and backyard greenhouses across the United States. In contrast to traditional outdoor plant-growing methods, CEA “is an advanced and intensive form of hydroponically-based agriculture where plants grow within a controlled environment to optimize horticultural practices.” Most CEA operations, in fact, eliminate the need for soil by utilizing either hydroponic or aeroponic technologies. Hydroponic operations grow plants in water, diffusing the nutrients necessary to plant growth through a circular system. Aeroponic operations, on the other hand, spray mixtures of water and nutrients directly onto the roots of plants. Both operations rely on computerized systems to monitor plant health, regulate water and nutrient delivery, and to optimize lighting if the operation uses artificial lights rather than sunlight.
A third form of CEA, called aquaponics, combines aquaculture with hydroponics to simultaneously raise aquatic animals and grow plants in a controlled environment. According to New Mexico State University, “the fish and plants are cultivated together in a recirculating ecosystem that utilizes natural nitrogen-fixing bacteria to convert fish/aquatic animal wastes into plant nutrients. The waste products of the aquaculture system serve as nutrients for the hydroponic system.” Just as hydroponics and aeroponics offer alternatives to larger, open-field cultivation, aquaponics operations offer an alternative to traditional open-water aquaculture and can be constructed almost anywhere.
As one might imagine, the emerging field of Controlled-Environment Agriculture has the potential to transform international agricultural development, particularly for countries with less arable land and limited access to water available for traditional growing methods. Caspian countries have long faced cultivation challenges posed by the mountainous, semi-arid terrain of the region. The recyclic design of CEA operations reduces the amount of water required for plant growing, and it can counter the irrigation needs of many Caspian agriculture sectors. High-functioning American CEA companies, such as Superior Fresh, have demonstrated impressive reduction in water use: some are using up to 95% less water than traditional growing practices do on the same plants.
In addition to offering greater water conservation, CEA’s environmentally-friendly approach reduces pesticide use and contaminated runoff through their circuitous nutrient application systems. Food systems experts are also excited about CEA’s potential to impact food transportation’s carbon footprint. In urban areas of the United States, vertical farming is increasingly replacing plants shipped from thousands of miles away with fresh, locally grown produce.
The entrepreneurial spirit of the vertical farming models, one in which farmers with enough capital can start a hydroponic operation virtually anywhere and begin to sell their produce locally, can also address the gender disparities present in Caspian agriculture. As this was the case with Azerbaijani women employed in agriculture facing a gender pay gap and the “triple work” burden of combining household work with wage work, CEA operations can turn burdensome household cultivation into profitable, women-run small enterprises by the adoption of hydroponic or aquaponic greenhouses in the backyard.
USAID’s ongoing Private Sector Activity can provide the technical expertise necessary to support the formation of similar projects in the region by connecting American agriculture input suppliers with local partners interested in adopting CEA technologies. PSA will also facilitate the communication and knowledge transfer necessary to make local CEA adoption viable and sustainable. The governments in the region are keen to grow the agriculture sector and have demonstrated a notable interest in shaping their countries’ reputations as modern, innovative regional players. PSA is committed to assisting innovation by facilitating American-Caspian business and academic linkages. Now is the time to address the region’s agricultural challenges in a sustainable, equitable, and profitable way by investing in CEA.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article and services provided by USAID contractors for the implementation of USAID projects do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.