In the search for more sustainable methods of food production, reducing the carbon footprint while also increasing the amount of food we can grow is the main obstacle. Creating more food with less energy for a rapidly increasing population is going to be one of the largest hurdles humanity jumps in the next century. One new method of sustainable farming that is being developed to help resolve this issue is hydroponics.
Hydroponics is a form of soilless indoor farming that utilizes growing plants in water-based solutions. The plants are kept in small pots where the roots of the plants are submerged into a water-based solution that contains necessary nutrients for it to grow. The solution is pumped into pipes where the plant roots are located, and the water is reused afterwards to bring down waste. As a result, hydroponics uses about 90 per cent less water than traditional soil farming (conventional farming).(1) But keep in mind, hydroponics at this time, only grows a select variety of edible greens.
Alongside the reduction of water usage, bringing food production to urban locations also has many sustainable benefits. For instance, taking transportation out of the food supply chain by growing food locally could contribute to reducing global carbon emissions. The problem of food deserts, or neighbourhoods with limited access to readily available and nutritious food, could also be solved by introducing locally grown produce. This, in turn, could spark an increase in local competition that would provide more affordable options.
One of the main setbacks with hydroponics is the energy use; it is very intensive on the power grid. In fact, the amount of energy required by a hydroponics farm is much larger than a conventional farm due to the complex HVAC systems, LED lights, and pump systems for moving the nutrient-filled solution around.(1) As we further develop renewable energy sources such as solar, hydro, and wind, we should see an increase in sustainable indoor farming over the years.
As the market for eco-friendly farming grows, more producers could be enticed to take up hydroponic farming. However, the current upfront costs of starting a hydroponics farm are high and can make for prices challenging to consumers and therefore the success of a start-up business. One way hydroponics can become more competitive in a saturated market is to carry an organic label and appeal to a specific market. However, the topic of hydroponic produce being labelled organic is one that is currently up for discussion.
This heated debate within the hydroponics world is due to a grey area in the plants’ production. While hydroponic plants are not grown with any pesticides or synthetic materials, the water-based solution they are grown in is infused with nutrients. Currently, most countries, including Canada, do not allow hydroponics to carry an organic label. However, one of the countries that does allow it is the United States. The Center for Food Safety did challenge the decision of the National Organic Standards Board in 2021 to allow hydroponic products to carry the organic label, but it was ultimately dismissed.(2) As a result, one could argue the market for hydroponics has become more competitive within the US. Globally, the market for hydroponics was estimated at about $3 billion USD in 2020 but is projected to hit $30 billion USD by 2028.(3)
Hydroponics, and all types of indoor farming, are still under continuous debate regarding sustainability and the organic label. However, agriculture could see some serious innovation in the coming years. With extensive research being done on renewable energy sources, the doors for alternative farming techniques are open. A rise in indoor farming could help support agriculture's role of feeding a growing population.
1. Popsop—Hydroponics at a Glance: Sustainable Alternative to Soil Gardening, 2015
2. Beyond Pesticides—Court Rules Soil-less Hydroponics Allowed Under Organic Standards, Organic Farmers/Consumers Say No, 2021
3. The Canadian Business Journal—Hydroponics Market Size to Reach USD 30.07 Billion by 2028, 2021