Planning Magazine

Launch an Ethical Ag-Tech Program with These 6 Tips

Controlled-environment agriculture can support local food systems, prioritize equity, and build trust.

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Basil and other edible plants are grown hydroponically with filtered rain water in Harlem, New York. Sara Naomi Lewkowicz/The New York Times.

Controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) has generated a lot of buzz over the past few years — particularly since 2020, when the pandemic threw supply chains into upheaval and communities saw food insecurity rates skyrocket. Today, venture capitalists and economic developers alike are investing in what some are calling the future of food.

But when it comes digital urban agrictulture, vertical farms, and other forms of CEA, true success can be measured through a values lens.

Food Solutions New England, for example, focuses on democracy, racial equity, sustainability, and trust, says Lisa Fernandez, communications director of the six-state food systems network.

"Some projects are decidedly extractive and are characterized by harmful [and] illegal treatment of workers, disdain for local communities and regulations, horrible reliance on fracked gas, et cetera — the list goes on and on," she explains. "Other enterprises seek to model low [or] no fossil fuel use, care for workers and communities, worker-owner attributes, and other values-based approaches to greenhouse growing."

Want to establish an equitable controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) program in your area? These tips from a New York City case study in Land Use Policy can help you evaluate whether a proposed farm is right for your community.

1. Do your homework.

Learn which technologies are used, whether the intended crops are of nutritional value, and how many living-wage jobs could be created.

2. Set goals.

Are you looking to address food inequities? Due to startup costs, commercial CEA farms are more likely to focus on high-value crops for wealthy consumers, whereas community and institutional farms are better positioned to get healthy food into the hands of those who need it — but they can require more financial and technical assistance to ensure their longevity.

3. Prioritize energy-efficient operations.

CEA farms on roofs, in glass buildings/greenhouses, or on the ground that rely on solar, not single-source lighting, should take precedence.

4. Site with intention.

CEA farms located in cities with high land values are best sited on roofs; however, in cities where land values are low, greenhouse production at the ground level could be a viable alternative to extend growing seasons — and provide better connections to local communities.

5. Keep financial expectations realistic.

Rural and peri-urban CEA businesses are likely more viable than those in city centers due to lower operational costs and greater economies of scale.

6. Create community benefits.

If you encounter businesses that demand tax incentives or other benefits, consider requiring that a meaningful percentage of hires include unemployed and underemployed individuals in the identified communities, that businesses guarantee living wages for entry-level workers, and that unsold produce be donated to food banks or shelters.

Michelle McCue is the founder of McCue Marketing Communications, a consulting firm that helps build strong communities and place-based brands through strategic planning, branding, and communications. Specializing in tourism, food, and agriculture-based development, McCue combines practical planning knowledge with strategic outreach to help clients achieve sustainable growth.