Growing food that is healthy for us all has become more difficult across the globe. Ensuring that our agricultural system is sustainable is an important goal many are trying to achieve.
One idea that is gaining in popularity, both commercially and at home, is hydroponics.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants, especially food crops, without using soil. A nutrient rich water mixture is the growing medium.
Historically, water culture was used to grow plants and many different types of nutrient mixes were attempted. This is not a new idea.
Many researchers have used different growing media and different plants to determine which would be the most beneficial and yield the highest amount of growth.
Not all hydroponic gardening uses just water for growing but also can use gravel, peat, vermiculite, sawdust, old rubber tires, and other aggregates to hold the nutrient rich water. The roots continue to be bathed in nutrient rich water in all these mediums, but unlike soil, do not have to ‘search’ for the nutrients.
Just about any type of plant can be grown using hydroponics but will require different handling practices, such as the amount of light, pH, water temperature and frequency of fresh water provided. Many are grown in greenhouses, both large and small, where the climate and growing conditions can be tightly controlled.
Benefits of Hydroponics
Growing in a different way, using this type of system, can have many benefits compared to conventional agriculture. Feeding more people most efficiently is a worldwide goal.
Here are some benefits that might make hydroponics more desirable in the future:
- Hydroponics saves water; it uses as little as 5% of what a regular farm consumes to produce the same amount of food. The water used is recycled so it requires less than conventional gardening.
- When an integrated pest management program is used during hydroponics, the plants can be grown without using pesticides or herbicides.
- There is less run off of chemicals when growing in water without the need for pesticides or herbicides compared with conventional agriculture.
- Because the grower controls the nutrients in the water, the products often have an improved taste, size and even nutritional value compared to those grown in soil. It does require management of growing conditions, cultivars and time of harvest to be sure the taste is as expected. It has been estimated that hydroponic produce can have up to 50% more vitamins than conventional crops. Researchers continue to investigate nutritional benefits.
- Hydroponics can use up to 50% less land to produce a crop. A hydroponic garden can be located in different places such as rooftops, desert, outer space, mountainsides or arctic communities making use of alternate growing locations nearer to the end user. This often means that hydroponic produce does not require as much transportation so that it can be used within hours of harvest instead of days or even longer.
- Can still get a food harvest growing hydroponically even when there may be drought conditions, global warming, water pollution or weather occurrences. You can grow year round even when the weather doesn’t allow it. It could de-seasonalize food growing since food can be grown throughout the year.
- For the grower, hydroponics gives them a maximum yield for each crop grown. It requires less land mass to grow the crop and the return on the investment is frequently found in the higher sales price they can charge for the availability, freshness and chemical free growing method. There is also less time needed between crops resulting in a greater overall output.
- There are new possibilities for governments to support growing so that disadvantaged people in economically depressed areas could be employed in this industry while at the same time feeding the population.
- There are many opportunities to use recycled materials in the growing medium that would otherwise by wasted.
Some Challenges of Hydroponics
There are some wonderful benefits for growing plants for feeding the world in water but there are also a few drawbacks. Unfortunately, a few might be enough to slow the growth of this type of agriculture.
The largest disadvantage of hydroponic growing is the cost involved. There are extensive startup costs associated with hydroponics.
- cost of the equipment
- cost of energy for lights and temperature control
- loss of power could result in crop loss
- technology for monitoring
- expertise to cultivate the nutrient rich water for the best yield
- management of the process with someone trained in the operation
- crops are limited to those with the highest return, that is, highest price obtained from the produce grown
- In many states, hydroponics can’t be termed organic despite not using chemicals because it is not grown in soil which is essential for organic certification.
Hopefully research and wider application will provide solutions to these challenges.
Feeding a Growing World
As the world population continues to grow, there will be an ever increasing demand for food and nutrition.
It is estimated that by 2050 we will need to have enough food to feed an additional two billion people.
We don’t want to upset the balance of the environment as we try to meet the challenges of feeding the world. Farming is a thirsty business. It also has a way of swallowing up open land and forests for crops and cattle.
Agriculture is working smarter around the globe. In addition to the rise of small farms, local growers and now hydroponics to help feed us all, the future is looking brighter.
We need all the answers we can get!