The Future of Farming?

 

We have some friends in the hydroponics business (seriously, it’s a legitimate business). They are crunchy organic types and I’ve been picking their brains lately about the environmental benefits of hydroponics technology. Yesterday one of them showed me this. It’s an article in New York magazine about a future technology called SkyFarming that, according to the inventors, could be ready to go in about 10 years.

I admit there is much to love about this type of farming. Water is recycled and contained in closed systems. Power is provide by solar panels and wind spires. There is no loss of topsoil or depletion of the nutrient content of soil…in fact, there isn’t any soil involved at all. 

And that’s where I start to feel a little strange about the whole thing. There’s something about digging in the earth that just feels so good. It’s hard to imagine gardening in the absence of dirt. But while folks like Joel Salatin have shown that one can produce large quantities of food from a relatively small operation and still treat the animals humanely, avoid pesticides and fertilizers, and maintain a healthy local ecosystem…with the world’s population growing exponentially, and urban populations swelling the most, I think it is inevitable that eventually we’ll have to come up with an alternative to land-based agriculture. 

The other issue I have is one of nutrient composition. We know that food grown industrially is deficient in nutrient content compared to food grown fifty years ago, i.e. before the development of modern industrial agriculture (see The End of Food; reviewed in my Book List). I’ve written before about the idea that an individual fruit or vegetable is nothing more or less than the sum of the ingredients that went into it. When those ingredients come from rich, organic, nutrient-dense soil you end up with a very healthy snack. When the soil has been depleted by overuse and artificial fertilizers are providing the main source of nutrients you end up with something that may look the same (though with industrial practices being what they are, likely not) but which contains far less in terms of nutritional value. 

With hydroponics, given that there is no soil, all nutrients must be provided artificially. How complete are these formulas? Can they provide all the macro- and micronutrients that a particular region of soil contains for that particular local edible plant? Michael Pollan pointed out the fallacy of nutritionism when it comes to the food we eat. So….can hydroponic fertilizers compare to good, old fashioned, compost-rich soil?

According to my friend there are amazing advances being made in this area. The fertilizers her company sells are made from such ingredients as kelp and other plants. Other ingredients are bioengineered by fungus and other micro-organisms that can provide usable, organic nitrogen from waste materials without the need for petroleum byproducts (see here; scroll down to “ET Products”). Still, I can’t help but wonder just how well we can duplicate Mother Nature. Will a tomato grown in a SkyFarm be the same nutritionally compared to one grown in good, healthy soil? 

Despite my beliefs that, even should SkyFarming become the major source of food production in the future, there will always be a core group that holds out for “the real thing” (the APLS of the future?)…I do think that there are enough great ideas in this system (recycling wastewater, capturing water moisture from the plants) that it represents a positive option for feeding our hungry planet in a sustainable way. What do you think of this idea?

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Of course, there should always be some traditional farming. However, given the food crises that are hitting the world, we need to consider these ideas. I know that Disney had worked with this. When I was 10, I ate in a restaurant that revolves around the hydroponic garden that grows all of the veggie matter for the restaurant.

    We need to work on a way to not deplete the soils and that we need to get the proper nutrients into the recycled waters….And traditional farming needs to continue.
    Think about the Amazon Rainforest right now. People are cutting down large regions to grow soy. What if they could grow soy crops WITHOUT destroying the land?

    Things to think about….certainly!

    Reply

  2. There are certainly tradeoffs here. The nutrient content of the resulting veg is one, but what about the energy that grows the plants? Those illustrations seem to indicate large electric light arrays providing the photons that the plants need to grow – where would the energy to run these come from?

    I just finished re-reading Omnivore’s Dilemma and the section on Joel Salatin was again a bit of a revelation – the thing about his style of farming is that there are so few *inputs* into the farm. I think in the future, with energy and commodity prices going ever higher, affordable and sustainable agriculture is going to be judged by what inputs it takes to grow, not so much how much space it takes to grow it. You can always cram more humans into less space, but I’m dubious about the veg.

    Reply

  3. Posted by ruralaspirations on July 17, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    SpaceMom: I agree that there will likely always be a place for backyard gardeners, but we will have to come up with some other way to mass-produce our food. Perhaps systems like the one at Polyface farms could be put into practice, but I think the hydroponics technology also offers many sustainable perks that make it an attractive option.

    spughy: with the SkyFarming concept the buildings would collect their own energy via solar panels and wind spires (corkscrew-style wind turbines). In fact they may even generate excess electricity for other urban users. They can also recycle city wastewater which I think is an excellent idea.

    Reply

  4. Hi. I couldn’t find an email address to contact you directly, so I apologize in advance for leaving this message as a comment.

    I am working with the online team for a new spirit made with acai and thought you and your readers would be interested in this company’s sustainability efforts. Please emamil me if you are interested in finding out more!

    Reply

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