Soilless Farming: Aeroponics and Hydroponics as Sustainable Solutions for Food Scarcity

Aeroponics-and-Hydroponics-as-Sustainable-Solutions-for-Food-Scarcity

As per Nobel laureate and American agronomist, Dr. Norman Ernest Borlaug, “You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.” 

Unfortunately, empty stomachs and human misery can be found in abundance in this day and age. According to UNICEF’s 2022 report, around 258 million people in 58 countries and territories faced acute food insecurity at crisis or worse levels. Food insecurity is one of our world’s biggest problems at present, and the dire situation is exacerbated by climate change, overpopulation, land degradation, etc., presenting significant challenges to traditional farming methods. Against this backdrop, soilless cultivation techniques like aeroponics and hydroponics emerge as promising alternatives, potentially transforming our approach to agriculture and food security.

In this article, we shall take a look at aeroponics and hydroponics to understand how these techniques can contribute towards achieving the goal of making full stomachs a right, instead of a privilege.

Why make a move towards soilless cultivation?

Why-make-a-move-towards-soilless-cultivation
Image courtesy of iStock

The move towards soilless cultivation is driven by the urgent need to adapt agricultural practices in a world where traditional farming is increasingly challenged. Arable land is a precious, and unfortunately limited, resource. That, compounded by the sprawl of urbanization and the dwindling rural populations willing to till the land, has put a strain on conventional agriculture.

Climate change has further amplified these challenges with a series of devastating natural disasters. Sea levels are rising, threatening to drown island nations and swallow up coastal areas and increase soil salinity in the process. Excessive rainfall leads to floods and landslides, stripping away nutrient-rich topsoil as well as life and property. Simultaneously, deforestation and increasing temperatures are causing land aridity, escalating the risks of drought and desertification. 

But what if we separate land from agriculture? Soilless cultivation presents a solution by detaching the process of growing food from land dependency. Some advantages of this can be:

  • Precise control over nutrient delivery to plants.
  • Significantly reduced water usage.
  • The ability to grow crops in limited or unconventional spaces.
  • Enabling continuous, year-round crop production.
  • Minimization of soil-related diseases and pests. 
  • Optimal resource utilization.
  • Reduced environmental impact.

A soilless setup can be extremely versatile. They can range from large, greenhouse-like scale operations to smaller, DIYable models in backyards, balconies or rooftops. 

This approach utilizes significantly less space, empowering individuals to grow fruits and vegetables for daily use and offering farmers a method to produce consistent yields in controlled environments. Soilless cultivation, therefore, emerges as a practical and innovative strategy to address the growing challenges in the field of agriculture.

Hydroponics: Revolutionizing cultivation without soil

A Hydroponic farm
Image courtesy of Barton Breeze

Hydroponics is a cultivation method involving growing plants in a soilless medium. This utilizes a variety of substrates, like perlite, vermiculite, coconut coir or even just water, as a growing medium. The key to hydroponics is a nutrient-rich solution, delivered directly to the plant’s roots. Depending on the system’s design, plant roots may be constantly submerged in this solution or periodically flooded to ensure optimal nutrient absorption.

DIY-hydroponic-setups
DIY hydroponic setups
Image courtesy of Country Living magazine and Flickr

A simple hydroponic setup can be created with inexpensive materials like PVC pipes, plastic bins or tubs and simple motorized pumps. Anyone can create a simple functional hydroponic setup. These systems are designed for space efficiency, allowing growing containers to be arranged in a variety of configurations to maximize crop-to-space output. 

Hydroponics can be used to cultivate a wide variety of plants. Ideal candidates for this method are those that prosper in controlled environments with a consistent nutrient supply, possess shallow root systems and have quick growth cycles. The versatility of hydroponic systems also accommodates climbing plants by incorporating trellises. Some of the plants best suited for hydroponic cultivation include leafy greens, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, peppers, legumes, etc. This adaptability and efficiency make hydroponics a pivotal technique in modern agriculture, especially in areas where traditional farming faces significant challenges.

Aeroponics: The art of growing plants in air

Aeroponics
Image courtesy of AGROTONOMY

Aeroponics represents an advanced form of soilless cultivation, where plants are grown with their roots suspended in the air. This approach eliminates the need for a traditional growing medium. Instead, the roots are housed within a chamber or enclosure, where they are regularly misted with a fine spray of nutrient-rich solution. On a commercial level, this misting is usually done using high-pressure nozzles or ultrasonic foggers, which create a highly humid environment around the roots, essential for their growth and health. 

Benjamin
Image courtesy of Benjamin Geils on Autodesk Instructables

Aeroponic systems are often more complex and require greater infrastructure than hydroponic setups, due to their unique operational needs. The plants in aeroponic systems are usually arranged in vertical tower-like structures. This vertical design is not only space-efficient but also leverages gravity to effectively deliver the nutrient solution that trickles down from the top of the tower directly to suspended roots below. Many popular ornamental and medicinal plants thrive in aeroponic setups due to the controlled environment and steady nutrient supply.

 Notably, crops like saffron and ginseng, which are highly valued for their culinary and medicinal properties, show exceptional growth and yield when grown in aeroponic systems. The precision and efficiency of aeroponics make it a significant contributor to innovative agricultural practices, particularly in optimizing space and resources for high-value crops.

How can these methods contribute to food security and economic growth?

Steady yields year-round

Soilless methods are practiced in controlled environments. This means all the factors affecting plant growth can be artfully managed, enabling consistent, year-round production. This consistency is particularly vital in regions with extreme climates, mitigating the impact of seasonal variations on cultivation.

For farmers, this translates into a reliable source of income throughout the year, reducing seasonal unemployment and combating the issue of agricultural communities abandoning farming in favor of urban jobs that offer steady employment.

Crop diversity and local produce

Soilless cultivation is less dependent on environmental factors like temperature, soil pH and salinity levels. This freedom allows for a significantly more diverse range of crops to be produced in otherwise limiting conditions. 

Local production of a wide variety of crops can meet the nutritional needs of the community, reducing the need to pay exorbitant prices to import produce that isn’t locally grown. Also, by growing a diverse range of crops locally, the environmental impact associated with the transportation of produce is significantly reduced. 

Medicinal and ornamental plants as export assets 

Growing conditions can often contribute significantly to the quality and by extension the price of medicinal and ornamental plants. Yet, in soilless setups, the growing conditions for these plants can be closely monitored, leading to the production of high-quality plants with a judicious use of resources for the cultivators. 

These plants are often highly sought after for their aesthetic value, medicinal properties or culinary uses, fetching substantial prices in national and international markets. By focusing on the cultivation of these high-value crops with soilless cultivation like hydroponics or aeroponics, farmers can tap into the lucrative export markets, providing an economic boost to the region.

Wrapping up

As we face evolving challenges in agriculture, soilless cultivation methods represent a forward-thinking approach to agriculture. They have demonstrated their capacity to address the pressing issue of food security concerns by providing a consistent source of fresh, nutritious produce. Their adaptability to diverse climates and conditions, along with their ability to mitigate the effects of climate change, positions them as key solutions to a more sustainable and secure global food supply. By enabling year-round cultivation, conserving resources, increasing crop yields, reducing environmental impact and promoting local and community-based food production, these soilless growing systems have the potential to significantly bolster food availability and resilience.

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Header Image Courtesy of Unsplash

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