Hydroponics As the world’s population grows exponentially, modern agricultural practices must focus on sustainability, to produce food while making efforts to maintain the environment. In order to produce more food for the growing population, producers have increased their use of viable agricultural lands resulting in 11% of earth being tilled for agriculture. While this number seems to be relatively low, it must be addressed that this 11% usage takes up almost all of the world’s land than can be used for crop production, due to various factors such as human development making the land unusable for growing crops (Owen, 2005).
In order to combat this ever-increasing issue, alternative-farming methods must be introduced internationally. One alternative method to traditional field-growth of crops has been shown to be very effective for centuries; this method is now called hydroponic production (Jones, 1997). Ancient Babylonian hanging gardens and Aztecan floating gardens are two examples of hydroponics from agricultural history that show the advantages of using hydroponics in an agricultural system (Jones, 1997).
Hydroponic production of crops is characterized by the propagation of crops in solutions of water and nutrients; these can be used with or without the addition of a growth media to provide mechanical support to the plant’s root system (Jensen, 2007). Growing plants hydroponically provides a wide array of ecological benefits, ranging from the ability to grow plants without the need for viable cropland, to high sustainability due to extremely low emissions. The basic advantages of growing plants in a hydroponic system are explained in Jones’ book, Hydroponics: A Practical Guide for the Soilless Grower (1997).
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Jones explains the three main advantages as: “crops can be grown where no suitable soil exists or where the soil is contaminated with disease,” “labor for tilling, cultivating, fumigating, watering, and other traditional practices is largely eliminated,” this advantage provides incentives for the use of a hydroponic system, but does not directly affect environmental sustainability, and “maximum yields are possible, making the system economically feasible in high-density and expensive land areas” (Jones, 1997). These three components are key to what makes hydroponic production of crops a viable choice for ecologically sustainable agriculture.
The first core advantage of hydroponic production described by Jones is that when hydroponics are paired with greenhouses or other growing environments, production can take place where no suitable soil is present; this addresses a main issue for the future of the food system and agriculture (Jones, 1997). Because most of the possible agricultural land in the world is already being used for production, (in many cases it is being overused,) efforts must be made to use alternative growing methods without expanding cropland.
In most current hydroponic systems, plants are propagated in greenhouses that provide maximum efficiency in growth, also providing high accessibility for farmers and control over the growing environment (Leonhardt and McCall, 1982). Within the greenhouses many different systems of production can be utilized, these systems range from the “water culture system”, which is the most common and simple, to “aeroponic systems”, which require the highest technology (Shrestha, Dunn).
The water culture system employs the basic function of the hydroponic system of production, using a floating platform that holds plants above the surface of the water. The roots are submerged within the water-solution that has an oxygen pump at the bottom of the tank; the tank supplies the roots with oxygen and other nutrients, this is categorized as an “active” production technique (Shrestha, Dunn). This method can be used at fairly large scales within a greenhouse and helps farmers to thoroughly manage nutrient availability for their plants, something that conventional farmers cannot control as dynamically.
Hydroponic production is divided into two main aggregate systems, closed (or recirculating), and open (or run-to-waste), and these two categories are further subdivided by passive and active systems (Johnson, 2010). Closed systems are the most ecologically efficient option for growing hydroponic plants, this is due to the fact that within this type of system, nutrients and water are recirculated and recycled. This means that farmers can reuse water, and add nutrients to the water as needed as plants deplete the concentrations (Shrestha, Dunn).
Plants in a closed system are often grown in gravel or “rockwool cultures,” which is considered the most widely used growth medium for hydroponic production (Shrestha, Dunn). Rockwool cultures are described as ground-up basalt rocks that is heated and spun into threads and used to form a wool-like material, these form small cubes that optimize growth for plants by retaining water and allowing for air space for root development (Shrestha, Dunn).
By utilizing recycling of water and nutrients, the closed production system offers the greatest choice for sustainability and is the method of choice for many sustainably driven hydroponic farms. Open systems of hydroponic productions involve disposal using of a “run-to-waste” system of used nutrients and water (Johnson, 2010). The water-nutrient solutions are used by the plants in passive or active methods, and when they have used to their maximum capacity the water, along with the used nutrients are moved to a waste facility (Shrestha, Dunn).
The open systems tend to utilize sand as a growth media, as well as the common rockwool culture (Shrestha, Dunn) Active, as a subcategory of open and closed production methods is described as the use of a wick and a growing media with very high capillary action, this provides the roots with the ability to take in the highest levels of water and nutrients. Active systems pass nutrient solutions directly over the plant roots to allow them to intake the nutrients, water and oxygen (Shrestha, Dunn).
Each of these hydroponic production systems have their advantages and disadvantages, although closed systems are the most ecologically-friendly, any of the hydroponic systems will provide environmental and sustainable benefits. Other growing environments have recently been introduced for producing crops hydroponically with even further ecological benefits. Structures such as “vertical farms,” are being familiarized in the production of vegetables. These “vertical farms” do not require a lot of space and can utilize closed aggregate production systems.
A vertical farm is a system of production that uses vertical tiers of growing pots or entire crop beds, because of their vertical alignment, nutrient solutions can be applied once to the highest level of plants and can, with the help of gravity, be passively applied to the plants growing below (Koerner, 2012). This cutting edge technology in the field of hydroponic production appears to be the direction many producers will take to transition hydroponic systems to a larger scale. An ideal use of vertical farming integrated with hydroponic crop production would be to create large, industrial-sized acilities that have many vertical tiers of growing beds for crops. These facilities could be placed within urban areas to provide fresh food to “food deserts,” and utilize space that would otherwise not be used. An important environmental benefit of these hydroponic systems is that that high yield production can be obtained with minimal emissions and other factors of agricultural production. Because vertical farming is in its beginning stages, there is no conclusive evidence as to how the technology can be translated for use in large-scale agriculture, but there are many highly environmentally conscious paths that can be taken.
Food shortages exist all over the world and these shortages are usually due to the inability to produce food, due to the climate, where the shortages exist. For example, many African countries have food shortages and cannot supply their citizens with adequate levels of food availability. The environment in Africa is not conducive for growing crops for the food system; high temperatures and arid climates do not allow the growth of most major food crops. Incorporating hydroponic systems in these types of environments could allow for production of food, where it would be unfeasible otherwise.
Hydroponic production allows farmers to manipulate growing conditions and maintain ideal conditions for the growth of crops resulting in the highest possible yields (Jones, 1997). These yields can be achieved in greenhouses, in arid climates, where many important crops for food staples cannot be grown. The third core advantage described by Jones is that maximum yields can be achieved in high density and high priced land areas (Jones, 1997). This advantage is key for producing fresh food within urban environments, while maintaining high yields.
Efforts are being made in urban environments to produce fresh vegetables where all “fresh” produce is imported for consumption. The most prevalent example of this type of agricultural system is taking place in New York City in alternative farming methods called “rooftop farms. ” In various New York boroughs, with Brooklyn being the most common, residents are beginning production of fruits and vegetables on top of their homes and apartments (Foderaro, 2012). These rooftop farms often utilize hydroponic production to maximize yields in these alternative-growing environments.
New York is considered to be the leader of the movement for commercial agriculture produced in an urban environment and movements such as this one can help the world’s hunger problem (Foderaro, 2012). Because most of the world’s expanding population lives in urban environments, this type of agriculture could be a highly viable solution for agricultural production in the future, utilizing available space that would otherwise not be used, especially not for agriculture. In 2012 under mayor Bloomberg’s administration, rooftop farms gained popularity and were greatly backed by various zoning modifications (Foderaro, 2012).
These rooftop farms have shown great environmental benefits; in a New York Times article, author Foderaro describes the benefits for growing fresh produce on the city’s rooftops. These benefits include recycling rainwater that would otherwise be diverted to the sewers, and greatly decreasing the amount of trucks bringing produce into the city, ultimately decreasing emissions of greenhouse gases and the consumption of fossil fuels (Foderaro, 2012). This type of system has promise as being a key part of the sustainable agriculture movement that must be put into affect to increase production for the food system.
The ecological benefits that are posed by the commercialization and adoption of hydroponic production practices have been shown for many years, in many different situations. In order to maximize productivity and yield, hydroponic technologies need to become a mainstream method of commercial farming, if general adoption of these techniques becomes more common, more research efforts will be put towards optimizing production methods. Through these studies, hydroponic production of crops can become a truly viable and ecologically sustainable source of food for the food system.
Cited Jones, J. Benton. Hydroponics: A Practical Guide for the Soilless Grower. 1. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 1997. 1-11. eBook. Owen, James. " Farming Claims Almost Half Earth's Land, New Maps Show. " National Geographic. 28 10 2010: n. page. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. Jensen, Merle H. "Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. " Arizona State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Arizona State University, 21 2 2007. Web. 4 Apr 2013. Shrestha, Arjina, and Bruce Dunn. "Hydroponics. "Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service. HLA-6442 n. page. Web. Apr. 2013. Leonhardt, Kenneth W. , and Wade W McCall. "Hydroponics. " Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service. General Home and Garden Series. 35 (1982): 1-4. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. Koerner, Claudia. "Vertical farm: Farmer takes crops to new heights. " Orange County Register [Laguna Beach] 5 9 2012, n. page. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. Johnson, Larry. "Types of Hydroponic Systems. " ExGro Garden. N. p. , 25 9 2010. Web. 4 Apr 2013. Foderaro, Lisa. "To Find Fields to Farm in New York City, Just Look Up. " New York Times 11 7 2012, N. Y. /Region n. page. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.
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