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

 

 

 

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