Nowadays, food-growing techniques depend heavily on pesticides and chemicals, which negatively impact the water and soil. Water and soil pollution, along with large-scale depletion of the topsoil, speed up climate change. Phenomena related to it are affecting the ability of the land to grow crops, leading to worldwide food shortages. In recent years, agricultural practices have seen a major shift towards sustainable food-growing methods, including permaculture, crop rotation, polyculture, and hydroponic farming. We take a look at the latter and analyse its potential benefits and disadvantages.
What Is Hydroponic Farming
Stemming from the Greek words “hydro” (water) and “ponos” (labour), hydroponics literally means “water working”.
The term essentially refers to a method of growing crops without soil. This may sound counterintuitive since plants derive essential nutrients for their growth from the soil, without which they could possibly die. Hydroponic plants, however, get all the required nutrients from a water solution medium, hence the presence of soil becomes unnecessary to its survival.
One of the major benefits of hydroponic farming is that this method can be used in small- as well as large-scale settings. People who do not have a large space, such as those that live in apartments or those that do not have a garden, can successfully use hydroponics to grow plants.
Although hydroponics is gaining positive traction among growers for providing a sustainable way of cultivating food, there are some plants that do not grow properly in a hydroponic setting. These include those that have deep roots, like potatoes, plants that grow tall, and vines.
How Does Hydroponic Farming Work?
For a plant to grow, three things are crucial: sunlight, water, and nutrients. In a traditional setting, plants are grown in the soil, which acts as a medium through which they get the required nutrients and water. Hydroponic plants get all the essential nutrients through a solution that reaches the roots via different types of equipment.
Types of Hydroponic Farming
Two systems of growing dominate a hydroponic setting:
An active system is where the roots of the plants have direct access to nutrients via a water solution circulated through pumps. This system is more intricate, so some growers might find it complicated. The active system uses pumps that move the nutrient solution from a reservoir to the roots. The excess solution that the roots can’t absorb travels back into the reservoir.
A passive system does not require a pump to circulate the solution. Instead, the plants are suspended in the solution which then reaches the roots via different methods that rely on gravity, flooding, or capillary systems. This type of hydroponic farming is easy to employ since no pumps are involved.
The farmer, however, is required to change the water frequently. Moreover, the absence of pumps makes it easier for algae to grow, which could degrade the water quality.
Advantages of Hydroponic Farming
Hydroponics is an effective system for growing plants, and in the coming future, it is likely to be one of the most useful sustainable ways of food production. Some of its main benefits include:
1. Producing High-Quality Food for Higher Population
In a hydroponic setting, growers do not use pesticides because there is less risk of pest infestation thanks to the indoor location. In addition, plants get the required nutrients directly in a solution, which allows them to develop faster and free from diseases. Not only is the produce good quality but the hydroponic setup can cater to higher population in the city areas, meaning availability of local food within the cities.
2. Reduced Water Consumption
Hydroponic farming uses very little water as compared to conventional agriculture. Much of that is because the water solution is reused and recirculated through the pipes in a hydroponic setting. The excess water is then taken back to the nutrient solution reservoir. This makes hydroponics a good farming technique in areas with water shortage due to droughts.
Contrarily in conventional farming, a large amount of water is used, much of which is lost due to evaporation and poor irrigation. In the end, only a tiny percentage of water reaches the plants.
3. Reduced Rate of Pest And Fungus
Hydroponics does not need soil to grow plants, reducing the instances of soil-borne diseases. Additionally, since this farming technique is done indoors and everything is in a controlled setup, the chances of pest infestations are much lower.
4. Improved Yield
Hydroponics provides a controlled and monitored environment for plants to grow. Additionally, directly supplying the roots with the required nutrients helps them to grow faster.
The indoor setting also positively affects the yield since growers do not have to rely on seasons. This means that crops can be grown all year round, without having to lose crops to external factors like pest infestation, weather changes, and trouble from animals and birds on the ground.
5. Optimal Use of Area/Regional Diversity
One of the best advantages of hydroponic farming is that it saves space. In traditional agriculture, plants are required to search for nutrients in the soil, due to which plants grow deeper roots.
In hydroponics, on the other hand, the nutrients are directly supplied to the roots, so they don’t have to search for them. Plants with less dense roots take up less space making hydroponics an ideal choice for city dwellers living in closed areas, desert prone areas, and extremely cold regions too.
Hydroponics farming allows for efficient use of nutrients because the entire setting is controlled and the plants are provided with just the required amount of macro and micro nutrients.
By providing optimum nutrients required for the growth, plants grown through hydroponics are known to achieve better yield and high growth rate as compared to the plants grown through traditional farming where the plants are dependent on the nutrients present in the soil that are dependent on different environmental parameters.
For example, variation in humidity and temperature and water quality can place plants under stress potential affecting their biochemical make affecting the growth and the quality of the produce.
6. Time Saving System
Traditional farming requires a lot of effort and time from the farmers to oversee tilling, weeding, watering, and fumigating; and all that in return to a yield that might not always be sufficient or satisfactory in terms of quality and quantity.
Contrarily, in hydroponics, all you need is to set it up in your preferred space and watch your plants grow. This may require initial investment and time but, if managed well, this guarantees long-term high returns.
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Disadvantages of Hydroponic Farming
Hydroponic farming, when compared to conventional agriculture, is easier and more effective. However, like with any good thing, hydroponic farming also has some drawbacks.
1. High Set-Up Cost
Setting up a hydroponic system is expensive. This is especially true for a large-scale system that uses a customised design.
Based on the automation and technology being used for setting up of the hydroponic system, the initial installation of things including water treatment plant, nutrient tank, lighting, air pump, reservoir, temperature controller, EC, acidity control, and plumbing systems can require a huge initial budget.
2. Reliance On Constant Power Supply/System
The hydroponic farming system relies heavily on electricity to continuously work its various components. If there is a power outage, the entire system is at risk of failing, which can negatively impact the plants.
Although new generation farms like Bowery Farming are using solar powered hydroponic systems, indoor vertical hydroponic gardens where the solar energy is used as the main power supply there are still challenges about initial operational costs to maintain the electrical source continuity. While the use of renewable sources of energy is definitely on the rise, the dependency on fossil energy still remains as a disadvantage.
3. High-Level Maintenance & Monitoring
Different components in a hydroponic system work together to allow for the smooth supply of nutrients to the plants. To avoid failure of any of these components, growers need to be highly vigilant.
Constant monitoring is required to check whether the pumps are working correctly or if the temperature and light are adequate.
4. Susceptibility to Waterborne Diseases
While growing plants in a hydroponic system helps reducing the risk of soil-borne diseases, the continuous circulation of water through the system puts the plants at risk of contracting some waterborne diseases.
Sometimes, these diseases are carried by the water solution from one plant to the rest. This can potentially destroy all the plants in the system.
5. Requires Special Expertise
There are a lot of technicalities involved in a hydroponic system. The equipment and techniques involved in the system need someone with proper knowledge and expertise on how to use them. The plants will likely not grow without the appropriate expertise, which can affect the yield negatively causing heavy loss.
6. Debatable Nature of Organic Labels
Since hydroponic farming does not use pesticides, can that be reason enough to certify hydroponic plants as organic? Some organic farmers are against this idea since organic farming involves working towards making the soil quality better and improving its fertility.
Since a hydroponic system doesn’t use soil, giving them the organic certificate is wrong. However, the Ninth Circuit Court on Thursday ruled in favour of USDA allowing hydroponically produced plants to be certified organic, provided they are free from chemical fertilisers, GMOs, and sewage.
Hydroponic farming is an effective method of growing plants indoors, and has its own benefits in various ways. It helps growers produce nutrient-rich plants much faster without the use of pesticides.
Although it does come with certain disadvantages, its benefits outweigh the drawbacks. With proper knowledge and use of renewable sources of energy, individuals, firms, and communities can use hydroponics to grow disease-free plants all year round.
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