Urban Hydro-Farming: Sustainable Solutions to Depleting Food Resources

Fresh water may soon become a costly commodity. The fundamental social problem of feeding society is growing larger due to a rising scarcity of water and an ongoing depletion of agricultural land. Population growth, climate changes, pollution, and agricultural water waste contribute to growing fresh water shortages around the world. Depletion of soil nutrients through poor farming techniques, floods, poor irrigation, and winds have seriously damaged agricultural land.

Approximately 40% of the world’s agricultural ground is unsuitable for farming. The role of agricultural business desperately needs to align with the evolving ethos of a rapidly growing society. Can hydroponic farming provide a sustainable solution to environmental problems caused by traditional farming methods? What practical applications does hydroponics have in densely populated urban areas? Farmers describe soil degradation as thinning and unproductive land that leads to low yielding crops.

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Land degradation includes nutrient depletion, loss of biodiversity, climate change, erosion by water, erosion by wind, reduced vegetative cover, pollution, drought, compaction by animals or machinery, sedimentation, increased soil temperatures, reduced organic matter, and salinization (Stockings, 2000 pg 5). According to the United Nation’s food and agriculture program, 854 million people do not have sufficient food for an active and healthy life (Sample, 2007). The population has increased by nearly 2 billion in the last 20 years and food production increased by 50%.

It is estimated that by 2050 the population will reach 9 billion. (Sample, 2007). State and federal officials have drafted accords in attempts to rectify water shortages. UN officials have gathered to create and execute a plan of action to improve conservation of soil and restoration of degraded land, but such plans are merely band-aids on a broken limb. The ultimate form of soil conservation is eliminating the use of soil in agriculture completely. Hydroponic agriculture offers a permanent solution to this rapidly growing problem of water shortages, pollution, and land degradation.

Development of hydroponic systems took place from 1925 through 1935. Experimentation with soil-less nutrient solutions and advancement in agricultural plastic by Professor Emery Myers Emmert at the University of Kentucky sparked an interest in hydroponic food production. Efforts were primarily aimed at large scale commercial food growth, but Hydroponic food systems were eventually abandoned due to high construction and operation costs (University of Arizona). Modern hydroponic systems are relatively inexpensive to build and offer several effective methods of food production.

The most popular commercial agriculture hydroponic system is the Nutrient Film Technique. NFT consist of a plastic pipe or gutter, a water reservoir, and a water pump. A thin film of nutrient infused water constantly flows through the tubing. Plant roots are suspended over the piping with only the roots touching the stream of nutrient water. The pipe or gutter is slightly elevated at the far end to allow water to drain back into the water reservoir. The NFT system delivers high levels of oxygen to the roots promoting vigorous plant growth.

NFT systems are ideal for leafy greens such as lettuce, cabbage and basil but are effective for a multitude of fruits, herbs, and vegetables. A minimal operating cost makes this system ideal for commercial applications. [pic] [pic] A popular system for larger plants is the ebb and flow or flood and drain system. This table system consists of a plastic tray, water pump, timer, reservoir, and tubing. The plants lay on the top table separate from the nutrient reservoir. The pump is programmed to turn on in 15 minute increments with variations specific to the type of plant and stage of development.

When activated, the pump will fill the table at top with the nutrient infused water from the reservoir below. Once it is turned off the water will drain back into the reservoir below. [pic] One of the simplest hydroponic methods is the deep water culture system. Often used in commercial applications, this system can be built with materials found at a local hardware store or discount retail market. The deep water culture system can be built with a non-transparent storage tote, an aquarium air pump, and an air stone commonly used in fish tanks.

Plant roots are permanently submerged in nutrient rich water. This system does not require a water pump or timer. Urbanization and technological developments extended the distance produce traveled to reach consumers. Heilbroner explains the changed by describing that “industrial technology has literally refashioned the human environment, bringing with it all the gains-and all the terrible problems-of city life on a mass scale” (Heilbroner, Milberg pg 83 ). Hydroponics is the tool to address the basic social problem of feeding society by making produce readily accessible and grown in urbanized areas.

Although traditional agriculture has served its purpose for many years, the ethos of rapidly growing demands sustainable and healthy forms of food production. Hydroponic farming in conjunction with greenhouses can help solve land degradation and water pollution problems through out the world. Lufa Farms, a Canadian farm based in Monteral, engineered a series of greenhouses on top of a 31,000-square foot office building. Greenhouse growing allows the Canadian farm to supply fresh produce all year round, even in 45 degree temperatures.

It is estimated that Lufa Farms can deliver more than 1,000 baskets of produce per week, three times more than land-based competitors. ( Business and the Environment). Greenhouse hydroponic farming not only solves the problem of land degradation and a water shortage due to traditional farming practices but it also alleviates the pressure of fossil fuel consumption and vehicle pollution. Because sustainable farming systems can be established in city rooftops and barges, transporting fruits and vegetables from remote farms is no longer necessary.

Produce grown in the city have shorter distances to travel reducing transportation expenses and fuel consumption. Consumers can purchase a fresher product at their local market. According to Columbia University professor of public health and microbiology Dickson D. Despommier, a 30-story, one square block farm could produce the same amount of produce as a 2,400 outdoor soil based farm ( Business and the Environment ). The Science Barge, a greenhouse and hydroponic system on top of a barge based in Yonkers, New York, is a fully functioning urban farm prototype for a fully sustainable food production sytem.

The Science Barge produces tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce without carbon emissions, chemical pesticides, or waste water runoff (New York Sun Works, 2010-2011). The barge uses solar and wind power to sustain greenhouses on top of the barge. Purified river water and rain water is used to irrigate the crops. Science Barge grown produce use seven times less land and four times less water than traditionally grown crops. (New York Sun Works, 2010-2011). The economic advantage of hydroponic farming can be identified through a cost-benefit analysis.

Considering that in 2000, 41% of all freshwater used in the United States was for Agricultural purposes (Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2006 Edition); reduction in water cost is one of the main economic advantages of hydroponic farming. BrightFarms is a company that has taken this emerging technology and developed a business model of “Better food, better prices, better environment. ” BrightFarms designs, finances, builds, and operates hydroponic greenhouse farms on supermarket rooftops.

BrightFarms pledge is “to deliver produce at equal or higher service levels than the retailer currently requires of its other suppliers. There is no cost to the retailer to build the BrightFarm, only an obligation to purchase the output. ” The company intends to increase profits by reducing shrink due to longer produce shelf life. They have calculated that this practice will produce higher gross margins for the retailer. The company implements a long-term price fix contract to protect the retailer from unstable prices, rising cost costs and inconstant supply. BrightFarms 2012). BrightFarms feels that “with the elimination of shipping, and the drastic reduction of fuel consumption, carbon emissions and water use, BrightFarms enables grocery retailers to change their produce supply chain in a way that improves the planet and their bottom line. ” (BrightFarms 2012). According to Brian H. Kurbjeweit, professor of Contemporary Business at the University of Redlands, economic progress is an interconnected system comprised of science, economics, law, and ethics all influenced by the ethos of a society.

The ethos of modern society has expressed an urgent need for sustainable business practices. Science has engineered the tools to effectively create a new form of responsible farming. Materials to build hydroponic systems are readily available at a relatively low cost. Through social media, instructional videos and written instructions to build and operate hydroponic systems are readily accessible world wide through urban farming forums free of cost on the Internet. There is a basic economic need to feed and sustain life.

The basic economic problem creates a market for those willing to invest in large-scale urban farming businesses. Responsible agriculture is an ethical guideline that all farmers in global and local economies should follow to ensure the basic economic problem is addressed. Continued land degradation, water pollution, and pesticide smothered produce combined with a rapidly growing world population will lead to further human suffering. It is an ethical duty of world leaders to implement sustainable forms of agriculture to nurture its citizens. Law, the missing factor is yet to be addressed.

It may be the ethos of future generations that persuades governments to execute laws to speed up the implementation of sustainable farming techniques or it may be severe ethical violations by non-complying agricultural corporations that spark the creation of laws to effectively protect citizens from illness caused by pesticides and water pollution. It may simply be an epidemic interest in well being or as author Malcom Gladwell describes, a tipping point may be reached where local co-ops solve the basic economic problem, one small community at a time, using sustainable forms of agriculture.

Stockings, M., Niamh, M. (2000). Land Degradation. Guidelines for Field Assesment, 5, 59-67.
Heilbriner, R., & Milberg W. (2008) The Making of Economic Society (12th Ed.). Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Sample, I (2007). Global food crisis looms as climate change and population growth strip fertile Land. The Guardian.
Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/aug/31/climatechange.food. Buying Local Takes on New Meaning. (2011). Business & the Environment, 22(9), 1-4. University of Arizona, Growing Tomatoes Hydroponically Retrieved from http://ag.arizona.edu/hydroponictomatoes/overview New York Sun Works, Center For Sustainable Engineering. (2011). Retrieved from http://nysunworks.org/thesciencebarge

BrightFarms. (2012) Better Food, Fresher Food. Retrieved from http://brightfarms.com/about/

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