Updated on October 25, 2012
In the 1990’s, hydroponics was looked at as too expensive to sustain, with a high failure rate and high instance of disease/pests. Then, biotechnology kind of took off, with lots of breakthroughs and innovations that gave a lot of people (particularly those involved in agriculture) a lot of excitement. Biotech was able to give us plants and crops that were resistant to disease and stood up to the strongest of pesticides and herbicides.
But more recently, biotechnology get’s a bad wrap for being “unnatural”, “unsafe”, and food crops created with these genetic altering methods are commonly referred to as “Frankenfood”.
Ok, fair enough. I’ve done my share of research on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and after what I’ve read regarding lab tests, I would choose not to eat them. I’ve written a little bit about GMO’s in a previous post. However, GMOs have not really been around long enough to truly understand the effects they may (or may not) have on humans. The “Precautionary Principle” is a method of action (or inaction) that errs on the side of safety before implementation. Basically, if something isn’t proven safe, precautions should be taken about the use of it if it will affect humans or the environment.
So, due to all this hesitation and skepticism about GMOs, other methods of growing food in an “unnatural” environment are also put under the microscope. Hydroponics, for example.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants, vegetables, and fruits in a very controlled, soil free environment. The plants are grown in water using mineral nutrient solutions in a greenhouse, so light, CO2 levels, and air temperature and circulation are also controlled. The advantages of this method are that the plants and food can be grown year round in a very small space, eliminating large fields, intense labor, heavy machinery, and transportation costs to consumers that are needed for conventional farming (hydroponic farms can be installed on top of buildings including a restaurant, grocery store, school, etc). They can be installed in any area of the world (ie: desert conditions, areas that have difficulty growing crops like certain areas in Africa). Plants tend to also grow better and faster than in soil, and water consumption is decreased as the water can be reused. There are some places that even use solar panels and wind turbines to offset or completely eliminate their energy consumption. Additionally, because the food is grown indoors in a controlled environment, contamination is less likely (although when it happens it’s bad news), as are pests.
However, a setup to grow hydroponically is initially pretty expensive, takes very careful attention because each plant needs specific nutrients, and is of course, not “natural”. One problem is that the nutrient solutions that are used to grow the plants, are not always clearly labeled by the suppliers, so the growers do not always everything that is in the nutrients they are buying.
Clearly, this might scare people away from hydroponics, because while some of the food grown can be called “organic” (because fertilizers and pesticides are not directly applied to the plants), synthetic fertilizers may still be present in the nutrient solutions being used.
The bottom line is hydroponic farming is a very scientific and kind of confusing in terms of regulations and chemicals used…. just like traditional farming. After a few hours of research, I tried to find articles that I can link to on this post. However, the only scientific articles I could find were through my school’s website (therefore un-linkable). That also means that there isn’t that much unbiased information out on the internet about hydroponics, so like GMO’s you may see some really polarized views when researching this topic.
In my opinion, I think hydroponics is better than GMO’s, as you are not actually messing with the DNA of the plant. I can’t say I know enough about the science behind it to say I don’t like the fact that there are chemicals being used to control the growth of the plant… but I haven’t yet read anything that claims them as unsafe or so far deviated from “natural” farming techniques that this method is just not another way of doing what is done in nature – or at least what we do to grow our crops in soil — especially in a corporate farming situation. I also think hydroponics is better in terms of addressing food shortage issues (which is still something up for debate, but something the GMO supporters use to gain leverage), because you can grow a lot in a very small space with a lot less energy and in any location in the world since it’s done indoors.
I found this picture of Aquaponics – using hydroponics and aquaculture together (incorporating fish into the water). I don’t know too much about this, but now I’m curious and will look into it!
I got the aquaponic images from what appears to be another environmental student’s blog: Examining Global Environmental Problems 2011
What do you think?
Oh, and if anyone can find reliable info on the topic of hydroponics or aquaponics, please post!!