Geographically Dependent Sustainability Indicators for Comparison of Conventional Vegetable Production to Controlled-Environment Agriculture

Research output: NRELPresentation


Many food system lifecycle analyses distill agricultural production and supply chain impacts into single-value sustainability metrics for various food categories. These studies provide an overview of the food supply system that highlight striking results such as the GHG impacts of meat production. The supply chain impacts of vegetable production occupy the middle ground; higher than average food loss and waste, lower than average overall energy use, etc. However, aggregated results obscure the sustainability implications of the location of food production, especially for vegetables. Moreover, the increasing instability of food production systems are not captured, as illustrated by a recent Washington Post article. According to a UC Merced study conducted for the state, California farmers left nearly 400,000 acres of agricultural land unplanted last year because of a lack of water. The result, the study found, was a direct economic cost to farmers of $1.1 billion and the loss of nearly 9,000 agricultural jobs. (The Washington Post, March 21, 2022.) Previous work quantified the food-energy-water nexus implications of transitioning vegetable production from large, centralized agricultural operations to smaller distributed production in controlled-environment farms (CEA). The importance of location-specific data is especially evident for water use. Water impacts of the food system are primarily local to the region where food is produced, water impacts vary significantly between locations, and water stress is a major concern in locations that currently host large agricultural operations. Location-specific data is needed to accurately assess the water impacts of transitioning to CEA. The location of farms in relation to consumers impacts transportation energy use, food loss and waste, and requirements for food processing (e.g., to reduce weight, preserve foods for long storage, and package foods to reduce damage and loss) Reducing transport is particularly relevant for agricultural products that could be grown in CEAs (fruits, vegetables, protein). Access to nutritious food is not evenly distributed in the population. Remote communities, communities in harsh environments, and economically-disadvantaged communities often have poor access to healthy foods. CEA is ideally suited to these environments. However, the energy and water use of CEA, while in many respects lower overall than conventional supply chains, are concentrated within communities and could have significant local impacts. This paper reports on development of sustainability metrics that seek to capture the tradeoffs between the current supply chain and a CEA supply chain for vegetables; focusing on the location-dependent implications of water use, the transition from largely fossil fuel based energy use to electricity, and the food access, resilience and wellbeing implications of urban versus rural food production.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages25
StatePublished - 2023

Publication series

NamePresented at the 30th International Symposium on Sustainable Systems and Technology (ISSST) Conference, 13-15 June 2023, Fort Collins, Colorado

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/PR-6A20-86544


  • controlled-environment agriculture
  • food-energy-water nexus
  • supply chain


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