Farming of The Future
Conventional Agriculture vs. the Population Challenge
Feeding over 7 billion people may be the greatest challenge of our generation. Is conventional agriculture up to it? Up to now we have responded to population pressures by intensifying food production. This translates into developing new technologies, converting more land into farmland, and increasing inputs like pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. So far, advances in technologies and farming practices have kept us ahead of the curve—however, there is a downside. More intensive agriculture can lead to the depletion of soil and minerals and the contamination of water bodies with chemicals. Deforestation to make way for agricultural crops can both destroy ecosystems and reduce our ability to capture CO2. If we rely exclusively on the intensification of standard agricultural practices to meet our population challenges, the UN predicts that we have less than a century of viable farming left. Conventional agriculture alone is not the answer.
Time to Adapt
We need to diversify our food production strategies to reduce the stress on our agricultural land. Since the most intensive population growth is concentrated in urban areas, we need a system that complements our existing agricultural sector that will be capable of addressing issues specific to urban population growth. Hydroponics may be part of the answer we’re looking for.
Hydroponics: farming of the future
The word hydroponics means hydro - water, and ponics - working. It is an intensive growing method that demands fewer inputs, takes up less land, and is able to flourish in urban centres. It is a method of producing plants without soil, using water and precisely developed nutrient solutions to support healthy growth. There are many benefits to soilless growing—read on to find out more!
The benefits of hydroponics
Hydroponics requires less space
Hydroponic systems can be installed anywhere—you don’t need acres of arable land. Hydroponic gardens are cropping up on rooftops, in warehouses, and in shipping crates around the world. Advancements in lighting technologies have even made it possible to grow underground: beneath London’s streets, a 550 m2 hydroponic farm produces 20,000 kg of greens annually. Adapting existing infrastructure reduces the strain on our agricultural land, allowing it to rest and regenerate. In addition, growing without soil frees us to grow vertically, making better use of space and producing more per square metre than conventional agriculture.
Hydroponics pollutes less
Soil-based irrigation systems can pollute the environment with harsh chemicals or nutrients. Fertilizer, for example, can be washed into water bodies through irrigation or rainfall, a phenomenon called run- off. When this occurs, the nutrients can dangerously alter fragile ecosystems. In a closed hydroponic system, the water and nutrients are contained and recycled, so we avoid many water pollution issues.
Extended growing seasons
There is no "end of season" for indoor hydroponics. With hydroponics you can enjoy fresh greens, even in winter. Of course winter growing requires more energy input to keep plants happy. This is an important consideration for indoor growing in places like Canada, where winter temperatures are frigid. The greenhouse industry has come up with many ways to reduce energy demands, from using renewable energy sources to installing reflective curtains to keep in the heat. Innovative industry pairings—like building a greenhouse next to a brewery or biorefinery that produces heat as a by-product—can benefit both partners.
Hydroponics is scalable
Hydroponics is a scalable technology that can be adapted to a wide range of contexts. Individual systems exist, small enough to fit on your kitchen counter. Several companies produce affordable hydroponic systems that are perfect for growing herbs in your kitchen. On the other end of the spectrum are the commercial endeavors the size of several football fields. At its roots, the concept is simple enough to be put together with pieces from the hardware store, but it can also be fully automated and integrated with the latest technology. This adaptability is key to the resilience we need in our future agricultural system.
As of 2017, more than 50% of the world’s growing population lives in urban areas. This number is expected to rise to 70% by 2050.
Hydroponics uses less water
In traditional irrigation systems, water that is not absorbed by the plant is lost. Most hydroponic systems recycle water through the system. Water is pumped from reservoirs—where nutrients and oxygen are added—to the plants where it flows past the roots, allowing the plants to uptake what they need. Unneeded water and nutrients flow back into the reservoir where they are re-oxygenated and replenished. As a result, a hydroponic system uses almost 90% less water than a conventional agriculture set up growing the same crop.
Hydroponics requires fewer inputs
Many of the pathogens and pests that plague our plants are found in soil, and so are less of an issue for hydroponic growth. Fewer weeds and pests means reduced need for herbicides and pesticides. Of course, hydroponics isn’t pest free, but the fact that most hydroponic systems are contained indoors makes pest control easier. Many current hydroponic producers use only bio-controls, like predatory insects, to manage pests. Ladybugs are a common biocontrol for aphids—deadly but cute!
Eutrophication occurs when excess phosphorous and nitrogen from fertilizers cause overgrowth of algae in a water body.
The algae can be unsightly when it’s alive, turning clear lakes green and murky.
It’s when the algae dies that the real issues begin. The algae expires, sinks to the bottom, and begins to decompose.
This process requires oxygen, which is drawn from the water.
This is a natural process that an ecosystem can handle in manageable amounts. However, when the growth rates are accelerated by human activities, the amount of oxygen removed from the water for decomposition increases to a level that makes it difficult for other organisms to thrive.
This can turn our once teeming water bodies into dead zones.
Chislock et al. (2013)
The perfect environment
Hydroponic systems allow for very precise control of nutrients so we can tailor well conditions to specific plant needs at certain times in their life cycle. Many hydroponic growers opt to use LEDs or High Pressure Sodium (HPS) lamps to supplement or completely control the amount of light plants are exposed to, which influences their growth cycles and yields. This is especially important for crops like cannabis, where budding can be induced by shortening daylight hours and boosting certain elements in the nutrient solution. If done properly, this can result in higher yields under shorter growing cycles, allowing us to grow more in less time.
Marijuana is well-suited to hydroponic cultivation. The legalization of marijuana in Canada will benefit the hydroponics industry.
Globe & Mail (2017)
If we integrate hydroponics into our production system in a thoughtful and meaningful way, it could be brought to bear an important social issue: urban food deserts. Food deserts are areas with limited access to fresh, nutritious food. Historically, food deserts occur most often in underprivileged areas. If the means of production—hydroponic systems—are brought to the people in a way that recognizes and challenges systemic inequalities with a focus on areas where healthy food is less accessible, we can begin to construct a more food-secure alternative. It is conceivable to imagine a future where the strategic conversion of old warehouses to hydroponic oases is employed to help combat the issue of food deserts.
Health & environment
As urban spaces expand, the distance between consumer and producer widens. This means food must travel further to get to our tables. Transporting food long distances increases gas emissions and often requires the use of energy-intensive and chemical processes for preservation. Since hydroponic production can be carried out in urban centres—in converted warehouses, for example—growing more of our produce hydroponically will directly address the transport issue. Locating food production in heavily populated centres reduces transport distance, which in turn reduces CO2 emissions and decreases the need for preservation. Consuming fresh food also means fewer nutrients are lost due to degradation during transport, a benefit that directly impacts the health of the consumer.
If it’s so great then what’s the hold up?
You might be asking yourself, if hydroponics are so great, why aren’t we producing all our food this way? There are a few areas that require some consideration.
At the moment, hydroponic growing is not suited to many staple crops. Current hydroponic technology is best suited for short cycle crops that can be grown on deep water such as herbs, leafy greens like lettuce, and small fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers. Research is needed on hydroponic production of diverse crops, including staples like grains. Despite these current limitations, the role of hydroponics in our food production system is deepening, and will only expand as research progresses.
At the time of writing (January 2018), hydroponic produce is not eligible for organic certification in Canada, primarily because the nutrients used often come from mined sources and are considered non- renewable. Traditional organic nutrients for hydroponics exist, though they are generally less effective, and continued research is necessary before they are optimized. An important decision passed by the US National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) in the US in November 2017 allowed US hydroponic producers to continue to be certified as organic, provided they meet other organic standards. This may set a precedent for similar treatment of hydroponics in Canada.
The solution to the agricultural crisis will be multi-faceted,
and hydroponics deserves a place on the roster
Increasingly, hydroponically-grown produce is cropping up on grocery store shelves. Lettuce is especially well-suited to hydroponic production—keep an eye out for lettuce from Canadian companies Neva Hydroponic Farms and Mucci Farms. Producers of strawberries, cucumbers, and many other crops are recognizing the benefits of hydroponics and diversifying their production methods with hydroponics.
Some of the earliest hydroponic systems were used during WWII to grow food for troops stationed on barren Pacific Islands. Just as hydroponics provided soldiers with sustenance in an uncertain time, it can help to support us through the coming period of agricultural uncertainty. The solution to the agricultural crisis will be multi-faceted, and hydroponics deserves a place on the roster. This is not to advocate the abandonment of industrial agriculture in favor of soilless growing, but to argue that hydroponics should be an integral part of how we grow certain foods, especially in an urban context. It’s as simple as growing food where we live.