Modern industrialized agriculture generates a lot of food, but it also has a negative impact on the environment. In fact, modern farms, commercial forests and other large-scale uses of land contribute 25% of greenhouse gases. It destroys our topsoil and aquifers, pollutes our water and air, and destabilizes our climate due to its over-reliance on pesticides and other agrochemicals, mechanization, and mono-cropping. What’s worse, climate change may make it more challenging to grow food, with droughts, floods, and extreme weather affecting food security for billions of people throughout the world.
Are there any options that address these drawbacks and bolster our food system for a more long-term future? Yes, there are.
According to proponents of regenerative agriculture permaculture and other emerging sustainable food production methods, it’s possible to store excess carbon in the soil. It’s also possible to create more nutrient-dense food, reduce or eliminate reliance on agrochemicals, and create more nutrient-dense, resilient, and sustainable food systems. These and other low-tech solutions work with nature’s laws, rather than exploiting it, to improve natural life systems.
In this article, we will dive into the concept of hydroponics. Let us see how it works and whether it can be a part of the overall solution.
Hydroponics is a form of agriculture or gardening that does not require the use of soil. The title is derived from the Greek terms “hudor” for water and “ponos” for work, and it roughly translates to “water-working.” If there is no soil, another question arises: What do the plants grow in?
While we’re only touching the surface of our quest to understand how complicated our soil microbiome is, it’s now widely assumed that plants only require 16 nutrients to thrive. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are three of these nutrients and they can be obtained through air and water exchange. The rest can be dissolved in the water that circulates inside the plant’s roots, coupled with growth hormones designed to resemble traditional soil-based systems. Hydroponics aims to imitate the critical elements of a plant’s natural environment by giving precise amounts of nutrients at specified times, using science and engineering.
Hydroponics was popularised by William F. Gericke, a scientist at UC Berkeley in the 1930s. He established his name with a study published in the American Journal of Botany in 1929 titled “Aquiculture—A Means of Crop Production.” Scientists and growers alike were skeptical of his claim that farmers and gardeners could grow plants in water instead of dirt. He might as well have claimed that humans didn’t need to breathe air.
At that moment in time, modern hydroponics benefited from developments in chemistry, data science, and computing. Modern hydroponics is extremely precise, data-driven, automated, and scalable to dimensions inconceivable to Gericke (though probably not to the Aztec farmers who farmed crops on top of a 2,100 square mile lake). According to Associated Press estimates, the food produced using hydroponic technology is worth $32 billion in sales now – and this figure is growing rapidly.
Hydroponics is likely to continue to grow and evolve throughout time. Additionally, it offers some enticing benefits in areas of the world where drought is wreaking havoc on the topsoil.
The benefits of hydroponics
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is helping with the implementation of hydroponic farming in places where there are food shortages. These efforts help farmers to grow more crops and feed more people. Hydroponics is beneficial to farmers mainly because it produces a higher yield. Hydroponics actually produces more calories per square foot. Furthermore, hydroponically cultivated plants can grow at least 20% quicker than their soil-bound counterparts.
Hydroponics also provides control. Unlike growing plants in soil, where there are so many variables to contend with (pH, light, air temperature, microorganisms, tilth, and so on), hydroponics allows for almost perfect control. This is because it takes the plant from its natural environment and replaces it in an ecological environment that engineers it to grow in the absence of soil, at least in theory. The plants are supplied with a nutrient solution. While this solution can take numerous forms, it often comes in the form of water mixed with fertilizers and minerals or trace elements that plants require for nutrition.
Hydroponics also uses less water. Since most hydroponic systems use recirculation systems to prevent waste, hydroponics consumes less water on a big scale, up to 90% less than typical field crop watering methods. In many places, a lot of water is lost in traditional farming because evaporation, inadequate irrigation, and soil erosion, among other things. Hydroponics can reduce losses in these places because it is not part of the normal water cycle.
Hydroponics also contributes to regional diversity. Farmers can grow food almost anywhere using hydroponics. Hydroponic systems, for example, can be set up in homes, greenhouses, or any other indoor space. Even desert regions, such as those found in Egypt and the Middle East, can support hydroponic agriculture on a large enough scale to meet local food demands. Scientists are also attempting to use the technology on the International Space Station, in a facility known as “Veggie,” to grow food for astronauts to allow them to stay in space for longer missions. In 2015, astronauts were allowed to eat space-grown leafy greens following extensive testing.
Hydroponic technology also allows for continuous production. Unlike traditional farmers who rely heavily on big outdoor crop fields, hydroponics farmers do not have to worry about the changing seasons. With a good hydroponics system, crops can be produced and harvested all year, boosting supply and minimizing the need for food preservation.
Finally, while conventional agriculture makes heavy use of chemical herbicides and pesticides, hydroponic systems don’t require nearly as much, if any, of these harmful substances. Few pests or diseases may thrive in a well-maintained hydroponic arrangement because there is no soil for pathogens to live in. Although pesticides and other toxic agrochemicals are often used in hydroponic cultivation, most at-home systems are free of them.
Types of hydroponic systems
Hydroponics is an increasingly common method of growing plants that relies on a nutrient-rich solution with a water basis rather than soil. Instead, plant roots are supported by materials like peat moss, clay pellets, perlite, and rockwool. If you’re considering using a hydroponic system to produce plants, there are hundreds of different hydroponic systems to choose from. All variations, however, are classified into only six types of hydroponic systems.
1) Wick system
The most straightforward setup is a wick system, named to highlight its functional resemblance to a candle wick. In a wick system, nutrients are pumped up to the growing media that holds the plants via a string from a water reservoir. This method is popular among home gardeners who want to experiment with hydroponics. Larger plants, however, will not benefit from this method because a string cannot deliver enough water. In addition, a poor setup or the wrong material selection can be harmful to the plants.
2) Deep water culture system
This approach, also known as the Kratky Method, involves planting plants in pots on top of a floating holder, with the roots in the growing media. It reduces waste by recirculating water and is both economical and low-maintenance. This strategy, however, is not suitable for huge plants or plants with long growing periods because they must be light enough to be supported by the floating raft.
3) Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) System
Many vertical farms, which are planted skyscrapers, use this technology. Thousands of square feet of hydroponic growing systems can be found in this type of farm. NFT is also the most commonly used type of hydroponic farm in homes, labs, and businesses. It works using a slightly downward-facing tube to allow continuous nutrient flow to the plant and back to the reservoir. This design has two benefits: it eliminates the need for a timer because the pump runs continuously, giving you one less item to set up (however, this could be problematic in a power outage). It also eliminates the requirement for a growth medium. However, it requires a little more upkeep because growers must ensure that the plant roots do not block the system. You also have to check the pump regularly to ensure that the plants are getting enough nutrients.
4) Ebb and flow system
This system regulates the flow of nutrients from the reservoir to the growth tray by using a pump on a timer. After the nutrients have completely covered the plant roots, they drain back into the reservoir. This method may be tailored to the farmer’s demands, and it efficiently uses water and energy, but it does require a large volume of growing media.
5) Drip system
In a drip system, a timer controls when the nutrient solution is fed through a series of drip pipes to supply tiny drops of water to the plants in this system. This system is low-cost and provides farmers with more flexibility over their schedule. However, it’s definitely overkill for a small backyard garden because it will waste a lot of water.
Aeroponics appears to be one of the most challenging hydroponics systems to master. There is no need for a growing medium because the plants are floating in the air. A timer also controls a spray system that delivers nutrients to the roots on a regular basis. As a result, this arrangement exposes the roots to more oxygen.
Aquaponics combines fish and – occasionally – other aquatic animals such as snails, prawns, and crayfish, with crops in a symbiotic system. Plants filter waste materials that are toxic to fish in high concentrations out of the system and use them for their own sustenance. While fish farming is frequently harmful to the environment, not all fish farms are the same. Aquaponic farms are unique in that they mix fish farming and hydroponics to create what has the potential to be a more sustainable system in which each component benefits the whole.
In the hopes of helping the underdogs succeed in positively impacting their community, Aquaponics AI powers the heroes of next-gen production with technology and research to improve their farms. Aquaponics AI can also connect farmers with system designers and thought leaders in the industry. The team has connected with the industry’s thought leaders and innovators to work and solve food insecurity by collaborating and expanding the practice of aquaponics globally.
For more information about Aquaponics AI, click here.