As part of our series on hydroponics we’ve taken a look at everything from is hydroponics without plastic possible right through to 5 reasons why hydroponics is important and we’ve finally come to answering the big one – can hydroponics feed the world?
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of hydroponics but hopefully this post will be an impartial argument for hydroponics.
Let’s get started!
Can Hydroponics Feed The World? Our Pros and Cons
When I first learned about hydroponics it felt like a revelation, the ability to grow crops bigger and faster than in traditional farming was like a lightbulb moment in my mind. I was so evangelical about the method but as I began to tell more people I kept getting push back with more and more people asking can hydroponics feed the world or is it just a pipe-dream?
We’ve touched on some of these pros and cons before but I feel that it might be useful to do a deep dive into each to expand upon the points.
There are so many upsides to hydroponics and aquaponics that we could write a full post on it. However, the below represent those benefits we believe are most crucial to answering the question can hydroponics feed the world.
Up first is the ability for hydroponics to work ANYWHERE. What we’re trying to do with hydroponics is mimic the outside environment but in a way that every part of the system is optimised – from providing the right amount and type of light right through to making sure that plants have the correct level of nutrients for growth.
In this post by Oxfam, they class ‘Production failure’ of crops as the leading reason for famine in Somalia. One of the biggest causes of plants failing is due to a lack of water caused by localised drought.
Within traditional farming, not all the water used to water crops is actually used by them. In dry regions, a lot of water quite literally falls through the cracks in the soil and goes to waste.
Within a hydroponic system however, water is constantly being recycled and there’s very little water waste meaning that plants can continuously grow even when water is scarce.
Since hydroponics doesn’t rely on soil, there’s significantly less pests and plant diseases which means that growers don’t need to rely on pesticides. This is one of the many reasons people cite when discussing if hydroponics can be considered organic.
No Nutrient leaching
While nutrient leaching might seem like an odd term, what it basically means is that plants don’t need to compete with weeds and other plants for nutrients within the ground. Obviously this isn’t an issue for hydroponic growers as it’s very rare for weeds to take seed within your grow.
As everything is designed to work in an optimised space and setup you need fewer people to manage the system with many of the traditional tasks like tilling, weeding and watering rendered obsolete.
Year round growing
Finally, because you are bringing the optimal outdoor growing conditions indoors, you’re not limited by growing seasons. This means you can constantly grow year round.
Okay, so now that we’ve looked at the pros, it’s time to look at some of the negatives. While it’s easy to think of hydroponics as a win-win system there are some valid points that have been raised by critics such as a 2015 in The Guardian.
Thankfully many of these criticisms don’t pack the punch they once did thanks to falling technology costs, however we should consider them all out of fairness.
Expensive Set Up
While you can certainly grow plants using a passive hydroponics setup using something like the wick system which requires nothing more than a 2L soda bottle and some wicking material, to create a system that can produce enough food to feed say a small village will require an active hydroponics system to be built and this comes at a cost.
Over reliance on electricity
Okay so this is the undeniable chink in the hydroponic armour – a reliance on electricity to run the pumps and lights.
Things go wrong faster
Because things are so optimised, when things go wrong, they go wrong significantly quicker. This means you need to constantly keep an eye on everything from TDS to electrical current levels in the system.
Finally, unless you’ve really locked down your system hygiene control, you can suffer from waterborne diseases which can spread through your system pretty quickly.
The Bottom Line
So can hydroponics feed the world? Well, despite some of the valid criticism of the method we still believe that it’s possible. Technology costs are only going to continue to fall making hydroponics a very cost effective farming method.