Hydroponics, Soilless and Vertical Farming

With population increasing exponentially, the agricultural land is being converted into jungles of concrete and urbanization.  The land available for crop and food production is, thus, declining miserably. In order to keep the planet that’s worth living, we have to develop alternate farming strategies for sustainable food production.

An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land that is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed the growing population to 9.2 billion by 2050, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today. At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA). Historically, some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. To feed so many people, we may require expanding farmland at the expense of forests and wilderness, or finding ways to radically increase crop yields.

To overcome the problem of food shortage, the farming is now also being initiated hydroponically and by soilless means on even uncultivable and waste lands which progressive entrepreneurs/ farmers  are adopting with some training.

 

Health & Nutritional awareness

In land-based and industrialized agriculture, there has been a lack of transparency in the production process as well as the distribution and supply chain of the food. Consumers today are skeptical of the actual nutritional value of their food instead of mere filling and production systems. Malnutrition is an increasing problem in both developed and developing countries.

Hydroponic/ Soilless farming provides consumers with a food option that is thought to contain higher nutritional value in terms of vitamins and antioxidants. Additionally, the shorter supply chain from soilless urban farming is considered a better choice for both personal and environmental health.

Climatic uncertainties and food prices

Food prices, currently soaring, are buffeted by droughts, floods and the cost of energy required planting, fertilizing, harvesting and transporting it. And prices will only get more unstable.The seeds of this agricultural revolution are taking root in cities around the world—a movement that boosters say will change the way that urbanites get their produce and solve some of the world’s biggest environmental problems along the way. The idea is flowering in many forms. Soilless farming/ hydroponic technology is also now used for growing fast and nutritious fodders and healthy microgreens.

Hydroponics and Soilless farming

The science of soilless farming is called hydroponics. It may sound like something devised in a modern laboratory, but it’s been around for thousands of years. The essential ingredient is an oxygenated mineral-nutrient solution that’s circulated through plants’ roots.

The ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon and growing of maize, squashes, beans, amaranth, tomatoes, chili peppers and flowers on floating platforms of rushes and reeds known as Chinampas by Aztecs are examples of hydroponics and soilless farming. A traditional hydroponics system is still in use on Myanmar’s Inle Lake, Dal Lake of Srinagar and similar systems probably existed in ancient India, Greece, China, and Egypt. Remarkably, as early as 1930s, Pan American Airways had established a hydroponic farm on a remote Pacific island to allow its flights to top up with food en route to Asia. Hydroponic farming is one such option that is the fastest growing sector of agriculture now a days, and it could very well dominate food production in the future. Globally, it was estimated that the hydroponic farming industry was worth $21.4 billion in 2015, with its value projected to grow at 7% per year. Slowly but steadily, farming appears to be changing. Slowly but steadily, farming appears to be changing.  As of 2017, Canada had hundreds of acres of large-scale commercial hydroponic greenhouses, producing tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers

As space missions are traveling further and farther from Earth, NASA is investigating potentials of hydroponics that could be used to create space farms to feed astronauts. Working with the University of Arizona, it is seeing whether it can create a closed-loop system that feeds human waste and CO2 into a hydroponic farm to create food, oxygen and water. In recent decades, NASA has done extensive hydroponic research for its Controlled Ecological Life Support System (CELSS). Hydroponics intended to take place on Mars are using LED lighting to grow in a different color spectrum with much less heat. Ray Wheeler, a plant physiologist at Kennedy Space Center’s Space Life Science Lab, believes that hydroponics will create advances within space travel. He terms this as a bio regenerative life support system.

Crops which can be grown Hydroponically

Practically any crop can be grown in hydroponics/soilless and vertical farming but with some modifications with specific requirements.  The most popular crops grown hydroponically are tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers, coloured capsicums; others include melons, lettuce, leafy greens, strawberries, potato,basil and other herbs, aubergine, chilies, and ornamental plants and flowers.

 

Vertical Farming (VF)

VF refers to  creating layered hydroponic farms which are be stacked (outfitted with led lighting) in order to limit space.  Hydroponics is the basis of Vertical Farming. This makes vertical  utilization of space in cities, where it is getting reduced day by day and populations are high-self-sustaining. The growing demand for fresh salads, vegetables and fruits;  gradually with changes in life styles and improvements in household incomes,  is generating interest for their production on roof tops, terraces, patios and verandas. It is to provide locally produced  farm fresh high quality food free from pesticides and other chemicals

A city-based food systems mean a reduced strain on distant farms, the reduction of habitat intrusions, fewer food miles, and fewer carbon emissions. Vertical farms are already in place/being built in Canada, America, South America, Holland,Thailand, Philippines, Israel, Japan, Singapore and Indonesia, India and even in small economies like Bangladesh and Pakistan.

VF can be described as a contemporary concept, which is actually an amalgamation of urban and rural fabric of life. It calls for commercially viable crops to be cultivated and grown inside multi-storey buildings that will mimic a wholly sustainable ecological system. So, it’s a fascinating proposition that can perfectly harmonize with the spatial and temporal (seasonal) natural elements to produce food for humanity’s need. Moreover, it can be logically argued so, albeit with some disadvantages. But the potentials of VF  outweigh the apprehension expressed.

The VF is a world-changing innovation whose time has come. Combinations of hydroponic, aeroponic, and related growing methods allow most crops to be produced indoors in large quantities. Current building are now being designed to use energy from wind power, solar power, and incineration of raw sewage and the inedible portion of harvested crops.

Prospects and Potentials of  Hydroponics and VF

The next era of farming would, thus, be technological in the hands of elite and rich instead of traditional rural farmers and in multistory towers of food and farming, not on soil but from soilless culture.

Hydroponics is a soilless growing medium perfect for those who don’t like to get their hands dirty. It affords busy, on-the-go people the option to systematize their gardens without compromising quality. Not only is it a cleaner, faster, and easier way of growing as compared to traditional methods, but  hydroponic farming will move from being the trendy way to being the way of the future for urban cities.

It can be practiced (i) in areas not suited for traditional farming, within cities for making food locally available, (ii) Grow food 365 days a year with increased plant density/ acreage over farm land,(iii) for faster harvest and enhanced productivity, (iv) efficient water (5-15%) and nutrients(25%) use, (v) provide jobs for local residents and cuts transportation cost and environment pollution, (vi) for drastically reducing dependence on fossil fuels by utilizing solar, wind or thermal energy, (vii) stopping  agricultural runoff and soil borne diseases, (vii) Protect crops from unpredictable and weather related problems, and (ix) overcome the problems of crops rotation

With so much ado about potentials of hydroponics, the question arises  why isn’t hydroponics taking over? This is due to several distinct disadvantages associated with these systems. The first is the high capital investment when compared with soil farming. Though hydroponics is typically much cheaper over time, it does require a substantial upfront cost to establish any sort of larger system. Next, there’s the threat of power failure, which can cause pumps to stop working and ruin crops. Finally, many people fear that hydroponics requires substantial know-how and research, when in fact, it’s very similar to traditional gardening. After all, plants rely on certain nutrients in order to grow, and these nutrients don’t change, no matter which system you’re using.

What is Hydroponic/ soilless /dirt free farming?

Traditional agriculture is cultivation of crops/plants in soil. The plants, in fact, do not need soil to grow but for its nutrients. If the plants are grown in nutrient solutions or any other substrate (other than soil) containing essential nutrients, the practice is known as soilless farming/ dirt free farming.

In soilless farming, the plant gets water based nutrients all in the right proportions through their roots and utilizing it most efficiently. Here the plant shows its full genetic potential without wasting energy unnecessarily on root growth.  It is termed as Hydroponic cultivation.

 

Hydroponic crop cultivation can be categorized broadly into three categories

 

Substrate based farming with nutrient solutions using  cocopeat, vermiculite, perlite, gravel, sand, haydite, clay pebbles, vydron, rockwool etc

True hydroponics

(i) Nutrient Film Technique; where a film of nutrient solution keep circulating around the roots

(ii) Deep Water culture; where the roots remain in a reservoir containing nutrient solution

Aeroponics; here the nutrient solutions are sprayed on the roots growing in a chamber below

Two types of hydroponic systems-  Passive or open (without power) and Active or closed (power or energy driven)  are employed depending upon resources and requirements

pH and Electrical conductivity are two most important parameters for growing plants hydroponically.  The recommended pH level for a general hydroponic solution is between 6 and 6.5 and ideal electrical conductivity (EC-is a convenient check of total salt concentration) range is 1.5 and 2.5 dS/m.

For nutrition, A combination of  6-Macronutrients(-Nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, sulphur, magnesium)  and 7-Micronutrients(- Iron, molybdenum, boron, copper, manganese, zinc, chlorine)  are required  for various crops. A proper knowledge about the role of these elements in plant growth and their deficiency symptoms helps in alleviating hunger/deficiency.

For hydroponics/ soilless farming, of the large number of substrates available,  some of the commonly used ones are: Gravel, cocopeat, vermiculite, perlite, leca/hydroton, rockwool

Light is another very important parameter for plant growth and development. It affects plant growth through its duration, direction, quality and intensity. High Intensity Discharge (HID) can regulate vegetative growth and High Pressure Sodium (HPS) with orange and red light promotes flowering and fruiting. These days LED light are being developed for saving energy with appropriate wavelength and colours for controlling growth/flowering.

Hydroponic fodder

Growing animal fodder hydroponically is also becoming popular for its ease and fast growth at many places world over and in India also. The main advantage is that it is pollution and pesticide free produced using 5-10 % water in a very short period of 8-10 days with little labour and without any fertilizer.

Microgreens

Microgreens are another sought after product creating a niche in the supermarkets. Although fragile, microgreens are versatile, flavourful and compliment the dishes in gourmet restaurants. They are very nutritious having 5-20 times more concentrated nutrient- minerals, vitamins and antioxidants than their mature plants. They are grown in vertical racks in small trays hydroponically and even without any nutrients.

Indian Scene

Farmers in India and other developing countries are still not able to adopt the hydroponic and vertical farming on a large scale due to high initial costs but the farmers and other cultivators who want to prosper should adopt this technology. They should not look for only government subsidies for the venture but tie up with banks and other financial institutions for support.  Yes, with the caution that they should first find suitable consumers/ buyers and end users for the enormous and voluminous quality produce from Hydroponic/VF. This can also be a good component in Government of India, Ministry of Agriculture’s Vegetable Initiative for Urban Clusters Cultivation in India. Avenues for hydroponic and vertical farming ventures in India exist and can be translated in following ways for various sections of society.

  1. Developing simple cheap hydroponic systems with nutrients for have-nots (BPL families) for the improvement of malnutrition through growing of leafy vegetables and herbs or small other crops
  2. Developing reasonably cost effective systems for home growing of vegetables at their terraces/ roof tops or even window sills for an average family
  3. Commercial scale automated systems with appropriate Vertical Farming technology for entrepreneurs

Epilogue

It would appear that the next era of farming would be technological in the hands of elite and rich instead of traditional rural farmers and in multistory towers of food and farming, not on soil but from hydroponic culture. Interestingly, most of the plants indeed do not necessarily require soil for their growth and production.

 

This article appeared in the Souvenir as Extended summary in the National Consultative Workshop on “Protected Cultivation to Meet Future Challenges at University of Agricultural Sciences“, Dharward from Feb. 17-18,2017, pp50-56

 

A Presentation on Hydroponics, Soilless and Vertical Farming is as under for your kind reference. – Click here for presentation

 

 

 

Soilless Farming Hydroponic Crop Cultivation

Tags

, ,

What is Soilless / Dirtfree Farming?

Traditional agriculture is cultivation of crops/plants in soil. The plants, in fact, do not need soil to grow but for its nutrients. If the plants are grown in nutrient solutions or any other substrate (other than soil) containing essential nutrients, the practice is known as soilless gardening / dirt free farming.

In a traditional soil-based garden, a plant wastes most of its energy developing a huge root system for it has to search far and wide in the soil for its food and water. In soilless gardening, these are directly available to the plant roots. The plant gets everything it needs, in all the right proportions, at just the right time and utilising it most efficiently. Here the plant shows its full genetic potential. They just bypass the soil and the plant’s requirements are met by nutrient rich water. It is known as Hydroponic cultivation.

The word hydroponics comes from two Greek words ‘hydro’ meaning water and ‘ponos’ meaning labor. This word was first used in 1929 by Dr Gericke, a California professor who began to develop what previously had been a laboratory technique into a commercial means of growing plants. The U.S. Army used hydroponic culture to grow fresh food for troops stationed on infertile Pacific islands during World War II. By the 1950s, there were viable commercial farms in America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

Hydroponics is a system of agriculture that utilizes nutrient laden water rather than soil for plant nourishment. Such a technology, in fact, has been in operation since 2004 at the South Pole Food Growth Chamber. Hydroponics was indeed chosen as the food production technology at the South Pole, due to the terms of the 1978 Antarctic Conservation Act which prohibits the ingress of soils to the continent.

In space also, hydroponic vegetable cultivation is being used that would not only supplement a healthy diet, but also remove toxic carbon dioxide from the air inside their spacecraft and create life-sustaining oxygen. “If you continually resupply and deliver commodities like food, that will become much more costly than producing your own food,” says Ray Wheeler, Plant Physiologist at Kennedy Space Center’s Space Life Sciences Lab.

The popularity of hydroponics has increased dramatically in a short period of time leading to an increase in experimentation and research in the area of indoor and outdoor hydroponic farming.

Categories of Soilless Farming

Soilless crop cultivation can be categorised broadly into three categories:
A. Substrate based farming with nutrient solutions using cocopeat, vermiculite, perlite, gravel, sand, haydite, clay pebbles, vydron, rockwool, etc.
B. True hydroponics
• Nutrient Film Technique
• Deep Water culture
C. Aeroponics

Essential of Soilless Farming

Apart from light, for soilless farming, plant needs the water based nutrients consisting of five macro elements (nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium and magnesium) required in large quantity and seven micro elements (iron, manganese, copper, sulphur, molybdenum, zinc and borate) needed in small quantity. The ideal EC range is 1.5 and 2.5 ds/m; pH 6.0-6.5

Crops Grown in Soilless Farming

Although any crop can be grown without soil, the most extensively grown leafy crop is lettuce and fruit crops are tomato and strawberry followed by bell pepper and cucumbers. Marijuana is grown in many parts of the world legally and underhand. Many other crops are also being tried in soilless farming with ample dividends. Basically, everything grown in horticulture can be grown in hydroponics. At many places, fodder is also being grown hydroponically.

Why soilless farming?

As the population of our planet soars at an alarming rate and arable land available for crop production declines incessantly, soilless cultivation/ hydroponics offer us a lifeline of sorts and allow us to produce crops in greenhouses or in multilevel buildings dedicated to agriculture. Apart from land, other resources like water and labour are becoming scarce.

In India alone, according to latest data from Ministry of Agriculture, as cited by TOI dated Aug 17, 2013, as many as 20 states reported decrease in cultivable land to the extent of 7,90,000 hectares in four years from 2007- 08 to 2010-11. The decrease is mainly attributed to diversion of cultivable land for nonagricultural purposes, including construction, industries and other developmental activities. Likewise earlier, MoEF has revealed on June 10, 2013 that India’s forest cover is depleting at a startling rate of 135 hectares (333 acres) per day. Such diversions are done for various projects to include coal mines, thermal power plants, and industrial and river valley projects.

We are not producing enough food and much of what we are producing is unevenly distributed. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recent estimates, 30 million people a year are dying of hunger (the equivalent of 100,000 folks per day), with another two billion suffering from malnutrition. All over the world there is a growing need for nutritious food rather than mere filling the stomach. Malnutrition is an increasing problem in both developed and developing countries. Currently soaring food prices are buffeted by droughts, floods and the cost of energy required planting, fertilising, harvesting and transporting it. And prices will only get more unstable. Climate change makes long-term crop planning uncertain.

An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land that is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed the growing population, if traditional practices continue as they are practiced today. At present, throughout the world, over 80% the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA). Historically, some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. To feed so many people, we may require expanding farmland at the expense of forests and wilderness, or finding ways to radically increase crop yields.

What can be done to avoid this impending disaster?

“In order to keep a planet that’s worth living on, we have to change our methods,” says Gertjan Meeuws, of Plant Lab, a private research company in Netherlands. With population increasing exponentially, farming is moving indoors, even where the sun never shines, where rainfall is irrelevant and where the climate is tailored according to as per crop requirement so that the same can be grown all-round the year. Indoor farming is not a new concept, of course. A wide variety of product, including tomatoes, herbs and spices, has been grown already quite successfully for many years. What is new, however, is the growing need to scale this technology to mass-production, to accommodate the rapidly accelerating migration of people from rural to urban areas. Skyscraper farms have enormous potential to improve both the urban and rural environment in many ways. They “Green” up the concrete jungle, providing more plants and more carbon-dioxide conversion in polluted urban areas. They also eventually allow the repair of ecosystems that have been sacrificed by decades of industrial horizontal farming. Due to fast urbanisation, when we run out of arable land in crowded cities, the solution is obvious: build upwards. The concept modified by dedicating high-rise buildings in urban environments for food purpose, is called vertical farming.

The necessary technology already exists. The glasshouse industry has more than a century’s experience of growing crops indoors in large quantities, says Gene Giacomelli, Director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Centre at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It is now possible to customise the temperature, humidity, lighting, airflow and nutrient conditions to get the best productivity out of plants year round, anywhere in the world, he says. Besides, a constant flow of air keeping the plants bathed in carbon dioxide, the basis of a vertical farm is hydroponics. Any nutrients and water that are not taken up by the roots can be recycled, rather than being lost into the soil.

Hydroponics: the basis of vertical farming

The basis of vertical farming is hydroponic (water based and soil-less) culture in nutrient solutions. The idea of a vertical farm has been existing at least since the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The modern idea of vertical farming uses techniques similar to glass houses, where natural sunlight can be augmented with artificial lighting. The term “Vertical Farming” was coined by Gilbert Ellis Bailey in 1915 when he authored a book with same name. He meant otherwise as he mentioned about farming underground with the use of explosives. Modern day usage refers to skyscrapers using some degree of natural light.

Despommier’s concept of “The Vertical Farm” emerged in 1999 at Columbia University. Dicknson Despommier is now considered to be the ‘Father of Vertical Farming’ and his ideas are being translated in several part of contemporary world. An article, on vertical farming, to some extent was covered in April, 2013 issue of the Soilless Gardening – India magazine, and hence it will not be described here.

Advantages of soilless farming

1. Can overcome temporal (seasonal) and spatial (agroclimatic) problems of crops.

2. Uses much less water, no percolation and runoff.

3. High density cropping. (i.e. more number of plants in small area)

4. Faster growth, early harvest / fruiting and with extended duration or some crops can be grown round the year.

5. Bigger yield with better quality and shelf life.

6. Less number of field operations for successful crop production.

7. Clean hygienic environment.

8. Effeicient nutrient utilization.

9. Can be grown by landless people on their rooftops/ in windowsills/inside houses or backyards.

Potential Drawbacks

1. High cost (i.e. initial capital cost, cost to run, energy).

2. High maintenance (i.e. constant supervision,) and management.

3. Requires specialised knowledge and equipment.

4. Pollination is another problem in enclosures for which extra steps by planting attractive flowers around or by the use of some growth regulators.

5. Epidemics and infestations can explode into total losses overnight on plant grown in confinement.

Role of Light in Soilless / Vertical Farming

The heart of the high tech vertical farming is lighting which is economically viable. It has been observed that high intensity discharge (HID) and metal halides promote vegetative growth; high pressure sodium (HPS) is used for early flowering. Now a days, the role of variety of LED lights viz red and blue, are being investigated and used for promoting photosynthesis and save energy.

Epilogue

It would appear that the next era of farming would be technological in the hands of elite and rich instead of traditional rural farmers and in multi-storey towers of food and farming, not on soil but from soilless culture. Interestingly, most of the plants indeed do not require soil for their growth and production. The role of soil is only anchorage or as a medium to provide the nutrients acquired through natural mineralization or from supplied fertilisers.

Farming on Shrinking Land

Tags

, , ,

Hydroponics is a water-based, soil-less way of cultivation. People can grow food in places where traditional agriculture simply isn’t possible such as arid, rocky, snow-bound and dense urban areas.

Food is made available to a city by land, sea and air from across a huge hinterland which spans the globe. Over 60 per cent of the human population now lives vertically in cities. The time has arrived for us to transform our traditional techniques of growing food. Vertical farming (VF) is now envisioned as a solution to maladies afflicting agriculture by scientists at Columbia University.

The vertical farm project was conceived as a response to increasing pressures of diminishing land resources and fast-changing climatic conditions to reliably produce food at reasonable financial and environmental costs to fulfil global food demand for a conservatively-estimated world population of 9-10 billion by 2050.

The idea is simple enough. Imagine a 30-storey building with glass walls, topped off with a huge solar panel. On each floor there would be giant planting beds, indoor fields in effect. There would be a sophisticated irrigation system. And so, crops of all kinds and small livestock could all be grown in a controlled environment in the most urban of settings without soil. The idea of vertical farming was first proposed 11 years ago by Dickson Despommier, Professor of Public Health at British Columbia University.

Big vertical farms do not yet exist, but could be a reality soon. These “vertical farms” would produce crops, poultry and fish year-round in a controlled environment free of pollutants, parasites and dangerous microbes. Despommier suggests that a 30-storey building with a basal area of 5 acres (2.02 ha) has the potential of producing crop yield equivalent to 2,400 acres (971.2 ha) of traditional horizontal farming.

Advantages of vertical farming / hydroponic cultivation

  • Can be done anywhere — in and around sea, sandy dunes or rocky, uncultivable and unproductive areas, high-rise mountainous areas and even Iceland
  • Possible in space, the Antarctica and atomic submarines
  • Can be done round the year. Temporal and spatial separation of crops can be overcome. Several crops can be grown on different floors/chambers in the same building
  • Can cut short the juvenile period of some crops through simple cloning
  • Uses much less space. In fact, the number of plants per acre can be enormously higher than on an acre of land
  • Uses 1/15th to 1/20th of water used in conventional agriculture
  • Yield obtained is of very high order and balanced nutritionally. The produce has a better appearance and longer shelf life
  • The smaller growing systems can even be moved wherever required
  • Is being exploited for surreptitious cultivation of opium and marijuana
  • Verticle farms may provide greater breathing space for a congested urban environment.

Despommier is now conceptualising several projects with administrators around the world. He does not quite divulge details but says that administrators from Chicago and New York are interested, and that he is working with people in other countries as well. Companies are also trying their own variations in smaller scales.

The vertical farm is more than just a produce factory. It also offers an alternative to rebuild a city’s infrastructure to mimic natural-resource cycles in the tower’s basement, where sewage provides the farm’s most crucial resources: energy and water. The surrounding city’s sewage system would be redirected to the farm where half of it would enter a “SlurryCarb” machine developed by EnerTech, a green-energy start-up in Atlanta. The device heats and pressurises the sludge, breaking it down into its base components-carbon and water. The machine extracts the water and the solid, coal-like slurry burns to power steam turbines that generate electricity.

The rest of the sewage is treated with bacteria-killing chemicals and turned into topsoil through a heating and drying process developed by N-Viro, an Ohio-based biosolids-recycling company. Water extracted from both processes is filtered through natural “bioremediators” such as zebra mussels, cattails and sawgrass that clean it until it’s suitable for agriculture or further refine it for drinking. Any farming waste is composted to make fertiliser and methane gas, which can utilised for energy production.

The basis of vertical farming is hydroponic (water based and soil-less) culture in nutrient solutions. For hydroponic cultivation, the nutrients consist of five macro elements (required in large quantity) and six micro elements (needed in small quantity). For the fixing of roots, a variety of inert supporting media like sand, gravel, coco coir, vermiculite, perlite, rookwool, and dihydro are used.

Two types of hydroponic systems employed are: passive or open system where nutrients are not recycled and do not use any power or pumps. The drawbacks of such a system are that it requires less care but are used for small plants with little produce and fresh items like salads and other greens. The active or closed systems involve power driven with pumps for the circulation of nutrients solutions through roots. These are more efficient but require more care and are used for large-scale cultivation. The active systems may (ebb and flow, drip irrigation) or may not contain the root supporting media.

Though hydroponics is the technology-based farming method for future, it has been utilised for hundreds of years by a variety of people. As noted in “Hydroponic Food Production” (fifth edition, Woodbridge Press, 1997, page 23) by Howard M. Resh: The hanging gardens of Babylon, the floating gardens of the Aztecs of Mexico and those of the Chinese are examples of hydroponic culture. Egyptian hieroglyphic records dating back several hundred years B.C. describe the growing of plants in water.

Vegetables are being cultivated successfully in space, South Pole and atomic submarines through vertical farming using hydroponic systems. Anna Heiney of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center says “NASA has extensive hydroponics research plans in place, which will benefit current space exploration as well as future, long-term colonisation of the Mars or the moon. As we haven’t yet found soil that can support life in space, and the logistics of transporting soil via the space shuttles seems impractical, hydroponics could be the key to food for astronauts thousands of miles from earth”. They could grow crops that would not only supplement a healthy diet but also remove toxic carbon dioxide from the air inside their spacecraft and create life-sustaining oxygen. “If you continually re-supply and deliver commodities like food that will become much more costly than producing your own food,” says Ray Wheeler, Plant Physiologist at Kennedy Space Center’s Space Life Sciences Lab.

In fact, hydroponics was chosen as the food production technology at the South Pole but the 1978 Antarctic Conservation Act prohibits the importation of soils to the continent. However, with so much fresh water available in the form of ice, the soil-less culture of hydroponics could be a perfect fit. The McMurdo food growth chamber provides the 200-plus station personnel with fresh salads and veggies like cantaloupes, pepper, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumber, besides a bright, green environment that is missed during the dark months when working through the Antarctic winter.

First, hydroponics offer people the ability to grow food in places where traditional agriculture simply isn’t possible. In areas with arid climates like Arizona and Israel, hydroponics has been in use for decades. This technique allows people to enjoy locally grown produce and enhance their food production.

Similarly, hydroponics is useful in dense urban areas. In Tokyo, hydroponics is used in lieu of traditional soil-based agriculture. Rice is harvested in underground vaults without the use of soil. Because the environment is perfectly controlled, four cycles of harvest can be performed annually instead of the traditional single harvest.

Hydroponics is also useful in remote locales such as Bermuda. With so little space available for planting, Bermudians have turned to hydroponic systems which take around 20 per cent of the land usually required for crop growth. This allows the citizens of the island to enjoy year-round local produce without the expense and delay of importation.

Finally, areas that don’t receive consistent sunlight or warm weather can benefit from hydroponics. Places like Alaska and Russia where growing seasons are shorter use hydroponic greenhouses with controlled conditions.

Interestingly, after a strawberry farm in Florida was wiped out by hurricane Andrew, the owners built a hydroponic farm. By growing strawberries indoors and stacking layers on top of each other, they now produce on one acre of land what used to require 30 acres. In the US, hydroponic tomatoes yield 150 tonnes per acre annually, which is 18 times of what is produced through conventional soil methods. A 10-acre site can yield 3 million pounds annually. In Canada, the average per capita consumption of tomatoes is 20 lbs. Thus, with a population of 20 million, the total annual consumption of tomatoes is 400 million pounds (200, 000 tonnes). Enough tomatoes for the entire population of Canada for a whole year could be grown hydroponically on just 1,300 acres of land!

Company Country
Vertical Farm Technologies NY, US
Valcents BC,Canada (Multilocational projects)
AeroFarms™ UAE and Middle East
Terrasphere- taken over by Converted Organics) Boston US
WORKac NY,US
Shimizu Corporation (Wall farming) Japan
Organitech Israel
Aero-Green Technology Singapore
Studiomobile Dubai
EnerTech Atlaanta, US
Sadler Machine Co Design for South pole
SOA Paris
Weber Thompson Design Seattle
Vincent Callebaut Brussels

The Institute of Simplified Hydroponics (ISH), USA, along with the Institute of Simplified Hydroponics, India, launched the “Pet Bharo – Hydroponics for sustainability” project in Bangalore and the “Women of Hope Project” in Hyderabad in January, 2009. These projects were launched to empower the people of India by making available low-cost, easy-to-learn hydroponics or soil-less production. The major goal of the ISH is to remove hunger and malnutrition and generate some income for the poor and less privileged families.

This writer has some experience in growing “hydroponic tomato” and does not find growing vegetables in soil-less culture using nutrient solutions very expensive. Indeed, this type of simple farming would be a boon to entrepreneurs in the remote and snow-bound areas of the North-East, Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh which remain cut off from the rest of the country during winter months. People in these areas, while confined to their four walls due to adverse climatic conditions, can produce fresh vegetables and salads. The defence forces, too, can make use of this technology for their personnel in inaccessible areas during the inclement weather.

This article was published in Opposite Editorial Agriculture in “The Tribune” on 12th Feb 2011.