Close up of hydroponics unit

Hydroponics: Farming for the Future

Today’s article is a guest post from contributor Jillian Eliel about hyrdoponics. Here, she discusses their potential in creating a more sustainable farming system then presents a hydroponic unit that she created.

Although the term ‘hydroponic’ was only coined in 1937, the technology behind it dates back thousands of years to things like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Floating Gardens of China. Hydroponics refers specifically to growing plants without soil, usually on floating mats made of substrates like wool or clay pellets, over tanks of water mixed with a nutrient solution. However, it’s commonly used as an umbrella term to describe any type of soilless growing system. The two other main types are aeroponics and aquaponics. Aeroponics describes a (usually) vertical growing system that sprays water and nutrient solution over the roots, without actually immersing them, and aquaponics is when fish are raised in the water tanks and the nutrient solution that’s usually added to the water is substituted with fish excrement.

Hydroponics Unit
Hydroponics
Aeroponics
Aquaponics

These technologies are rapidly becoming more popular, especially in the United States and the UK. In fact, if you go to a popular grocery store like Fred Meyer or Safeway and walk to the section with the pre-shredded and bagged salad greens, you might see some hydroponically grown lettuce heads in their own packaging. And while wrapping individual heads of lettuce in plastic packaging is a whole other issue, hydroponically grown produce is arguably much more sustainable than growing crops in soil.

For one, crops in hydroponic systems can be planted much closer together. The trays can even be layered if artificial lighting is used. This means that much less space is used to produce higher yields than if the produce was grown on land. Plants in systems such as this also grow much faster as a result of the consistent availability of water and nutrients to the plants’ roots, and so fertilizers are not needed. They have a much longer growing season, and so where in soil it might only be possible to harvest 2 crop cycles per year, using hydroponics can increase that to 6 cycles. And because these systems are almost always inside a greenhouse or some other temperature-controlled room, unwanted seeds and pests can’t access the crops, so pesticides and herbicides are never needed, thus making every crop organic. Food wasted due to being visually unappealing is also significantly reduced because the produce grown is of much higher quality as a result of no pests and lack of damage during harvest due to the design of the systems.

The water efficiency of these systems is astounding. Most systems having between 95% and 98% efficiency, compared to 20-60% of more traditional methods, such as furrows. Water scarcity is a huge problem in places like India, where 90% of the water available is going towards agriculture, the runoff from which then becomes a significant pollutant in many bodies of water, as well as being unsafe for human consumption. So not only could these systems aid significantly in or even solve water scarcity in many places around the world, but they could also help in preventing further soil degradation as a result of constant usage.

At this point, these systems probably seem to be the solution to pretty much every problem we as humans face as our population continues to steadily increase. They would reduce food waste and water scarcity, they could stop soil degradation, the increased yields would drive down global prices, making food much more affordable, which would decrease global hunger and poverty. So, where’s the problem? There are 2 main limitations of systems like these that severely inhibit their development.

Firstly, not all crops can be grown hydroponically, particularly grains such as corn and wheat, which are massive industries and especially vital in the bread and meat industries. Secondly, these systems are not cheap, which is an extremely large obstacle to overcome for families already in extreme poverty, who are usually the ones growing things in lesser developed countries. There are many other smaller obstacles, such as the level of education required to operate a hydroponics system, that prevent this technology from becoming more widespread, but as aforementioned, the technology is still being developed and is increasing in popularity in more developed countries. The only question that remains is will we be able to adopt the technologies fast enough to sustain our ever-growing population?

If you want to decrease both money spent at the grocery store and your buying of things with plastic packaging, I highly recommend building your own hydroponics unit. There are hundreds of plans online, so you can find the one that best suits your needs. And if you aren’t the build-it-yourself type person, there are many companies that sell single or family-sized hydroponic and aeroponic units.

Here are some pictures of the one I built:

Image of Jillian Eliel's hydroponics unitClose up of hydroponics unit

Close up of one plant on hydroponics unitTwo plants on hydroponics unit

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