By 2050, the World Health Organization estimates that the total population of the world will increase to 9.7 billion. With almost 3 billion more mouths to feed than in 2010, food demand is expected to increase by 70%.
This is becoming extremely problematic. While the number of people grows, the amount of land used to feed these people is not. As of 2019, only 11% of the world’s surface is being used to meet the demand for food. Unfortunately, this number is shrinking because of decades of polluted soil and global warming affecting the fertile areas.
Farmers, Companies and Organizations from around the world have been trying to find solutions to these problems in the hopes of finding a sustainable way to grow food: one solution might have been invented hundreds of years ago.
What are hydroponic farms?
The most promising solution to feed the generations to come is called hydroponic farming. Simply put, it is a way to skip the soil in agriculture and obtain the same crops. The foundational elements needed for a hydroponic system are freshwater, oxygen, root support, nutrients, and sunlight.
Hydroponic farms work by allowing the farmer to control environmental conditions like temperature and pH balance. The crops grow the same way they would outside, except they do not use soil. Instead, farmers use a mix of root system (perlite, Rockwool, clay pellets, etc.) and nutrients. They administer these tailored nutrient solutions to each plant to help them grow and become ready to eat.
There are many ways to present a hydroponic farm, different techniques, and nutrients. This would all depend on the plant you want to grow, and the environment you work with. For this insight, we will focus on hydroponic farms in general as a sustainable solution to your food needs.
What are the advantages?
Plant anywhere, anytime: While it sounds like traditional farming, replacing the soil with a root system is what makes this way of farming such a game-changer. Some of the biggest open spaces in the world such as jungles, forests and mountains are ideal to farm because of the hectares of free land. However, these environments all share the same problem; the soil is not conducive for farming. No longer needing fertile soil means that farmers can grow food anywhere in the world regardless of the season and weather conditions. This opens a huge opportunity for farmers to keep growing food during winter or even plant crops in the middle of deserts.
Resource efficiency: First and foremost, hydroponic farming is water-efficient: hydroponic farms can use up to 90% less water. This is because the water can be extracted and after the pH is re-adjusted farmers can re-use this same water repeatedly. Secondly, because of the pre-planned and controlled conditions, the roots are only directly given specific nutrients they need to grow. The plant spends more time developing, and less time growing extensive roots that it would traditionally do to search for energy. Because of this, hydroponic plants can mature up to 25% faster with fewer resources needed for its growth.
Combats climate change: Because of this farming system, farmers can grow their food closer to their market. Farmers send out their produce across the world to their customers. Depending on the method of transportation, this creates a lot of CO2, which contributes to global warming and climate change. Using hydroponic systems, farmers can produce their crops in more urban areas closer to their markets, meaning there is less need for transportation (so less pollution) and the crops stay fresh.
Why is it not widely used?
Despite hydroponic farming seeming like a very sustainable strategy, there are some problems which explain why this concept has not yet been adopted in all farms around the world.
Too expensive: As many innovations are these days, hydroponic farming is not cheap. While you don’t need dozens of trucks and lots of acres of land, you still need an enclosed facility to grow the crops, and you need to have constant power running to properly control the environment in which the plants are grown. Furthermore, there are high fixed costs for installing vertical farms and all the watering systems.
Limited crops: The biggest drawback to the system is that the number of crops that can be grown hydroponically are very limited: the top ones include tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, strawberries, etc. Other crops such as onions and potatoes can be grown, but the technique is not optimal yet. The problem comes from their large roots which are not suited for a soilless environment.
Not Organic: While a relatively minor problem for some, organic labels of where and how our food is grown are becoming a growing concern amongst some consumers. The trend of organic food has been rising, and despite being sustainable, hydroponic farms are not organic as chemicals are put into the nutrients and water to make sure the plants grow correctly and efficiently into their environment.
Is it a good investment opportunity?
Currently, Europe stands at the forefront of the global hydroponics market accounting for 37% of the market. And there is reason to be optimistic. The hydroponic farming industry shows no signs of disappearing. The market’s global worth is predicted to grow to $16 billion by 2025.
Because of the advantages and disadvantages, many are wondering if it is a good investment.
To better understand the recommendation, we must note that it has been shown that 75% of farms that used a combination of farming systems were not profitable. On the contrary, farmers who grew 100% hydroponically reported profitable farms. This means that as a farmer, to be profitable, you must choose to either only grow hydroponically or only traditionally with soil, not both.
In Europe and America, farming is a widespread practice, profits are stable, and governments do everything they can to support the industry. From this perspective, it does not make immediate sense to switch the entire mode of farming from soil-based to hydroponic. It will be very costly to switch everything up simply to get the same returns. However, we cannot ignore that the soils are polluted so for these farmers, there are other alternatives such as permaculture or agroforestry for sustainable farming.
The biggest beneficiary of hydroponic farms would be countries like the UAE where the land is infertile or Singapore, where land is not available. For different reasons, only 1% of both countries’ soils are available for agriculture compared to 24% in the UK. It is interesting to note that 80-90% of the food in both these countries is being imported, which is why hydroponic farms are an ideal solution. The water efficiency and lack of soil make hydroponic farming worth it for farmers in the UAE, while for Singapore, it is space efficiency through vertical farming that is most attractive.
Hydroponic farms are an interesting solution to explore, regardless of which country you are farming in. It remains one of the best sustainable farming methods, and with all the R&D in the industry, it is only a matter of time before more crops can be grown for cheaper making it more attractive for traditional soil farmers.
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This article has been written by SEPEC Consults SAS.