Is Hydroponics the Future of Agriculture?

By Emily Folk

Agricultural engineering has taken us far beyond the early efforts of our ancient ancestors. Prehistory hunter-gatherer tribes had access to a food supply which could sustain, at most, a global population of 4 million people. With modern methods of cultivation and animal husbandry, the situation has changed.

From the first domesticated crops to the large-scale operations we see today, professionals in agriculture have always found ways to meet the expectations and demands of the societies which depend on them. The growing pressure to produce more for less has led to amazing developments in food science.

Among all examples of agricultural innovation, hydroponics is one of the most impressive. We'll explore the subject in greater detail, looking at what the technology involves as well as its place within the future of the agriculture industry. Farmers, ranchers and techies alike will all see the promise in hydroponics.

What Is Hydroponics?

Imagine a farming operation which is invulnerable to pests, pathogens and poor weather, capable of producing high-quality, low-carbon food year-round. With hydroponics, this hypothetical isn't only possible, but plausible, and the strength of the system rests in its fundamentals — namely, its configuration.

Instead of depending on soil, hydroponics replaces it with mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. This method allows roots to absorb nutrients with greater efficiency. It also enables professionals to structure their operations with more flexibility, protected from inclement conditions within a controlled environment.

What Does it Look Like?

San Francisco-based startup Plenty, provides a clear picture of what indoor farming looks like. They grow a selection of salad and leafy greens hydroponically in three individual locations, using artificial lighting to nourish plants stacked floor to ceiling in large warehouses. It's a system designed to capitalize on the available space.

In this regard, Plenty has seen incredible success, and its co-founder and CEO, Matt Barnard, claims their style of farming yields 350 times the produce per acre on just 1 percent of the water used in traditional dirt farming. At their current rate, they expect to grow 4.5 million pounds annually. Still, there are detractors.

What Are the Issues?

The future success of hydroponics isn't guaranteed. Its benefits are clear, of course, with reduced water expenditure and land usage, but certain drawbacks might make entrepreneurs and investors hesitate. One roadblock is the astronomical cost of starting a hydroponic farm, compared to traditional farming operations.

Today's hydroponics companies also depend heavily on investor capital and incomplete technology which is still under development. More than that, it's unclear if consumers will consider hydroponic produce a viable alternative to the field-grown food familiar to them. Despite these challenges, there's still hope.

What Can Farmers Expect?

A transition en masse to hydroponic technology isn't likely, but its advantages are essential to consider. Improved productivity is just one of the ways in which hydroponics can innovate agriculture, with nutrient solutions, electric lights, heaters and other equipment accelerating growth.

Additionally, hydroponic operations are eco-friendly. The water which professionals use to nourish the plants is recyclable, and they need far less fertilizer than the amount employed in traditional dirt farming. Harmful pesticides are also unnecessary, as the plants are safe within the warehouse.

The strongest case for the value of hydroponics is its adaptability. Hydroponic facilities aren't limited to rural areas, and professionals can maintain their operations virtually anywhere, as long as they have access to the proper resources. As the global population of 7 billion people continues to increase, this flexibility will prove indispensable around the world in places where the soil doesn't allow for standard farming techniques.

The Potential of Hydroponics

Agriculture has come a long way since the early domestication of crops and livestock. From the invention of irrigation to modern machinery and equipment, agricultural technology has evolved to meet societal demand. Looking into the future, what role does hydroponics play?

Beyond speculation and conjecture, one thing is clear. The potential of hydroponics is undeniable.

About the author: Emily is a sustainability writer and avid gardener. You can read more of her work on her site, Conservation Folks, where she writes about helping tomorrow’s planet today.