A brief dive into the history of hydroponics.
What does a plant need to grow?
Well, we are all able to get together the basics: sunlight, water and some soil.
But the question is how do these variables affect each other? There are some plants that don’t need as much light as others, some even avoid direct sunlight. Others prefer very moist environments whilst some type of plants thrive in dry weather conditions, surviving months without any water. Looking a little more in depth, you find out that every plant has its unique “feel good spot”.
Until now, agriculture has been much based on best practices. We know what works, but we are not able to control much of this “feel good spot”. At the end, a successful crop is pretty much up to the weather gods’ mercy. This is a great problem for farmers and they don’t really have any power to change it. Their income is dependent on their harvest and prices are dependent on demand and availability. It is not just the farmers who are influenced by this, but pretty much the whole industry.
Last year, poor weather conditions in Spain caused British supermarkets to ration the amount of lettuce customers could buy and led chains like Tesco to ship lettuce from the US.
As the world population is growing and global warming is changing our climate, these events will happen more often and more extreme than ever before. Making it even harder for our farmers. But let’s not get carried away… innovative solutions are in progress and some of them fall back on a method that has been first developed back in 1929.
The first hydroponic system
A German guy called Professor William Frederick Gericke took the so-called solution culture – using water culture and no soil – and tried to commercialise it, being the first who called it a Hydroponic system.
In the early days, researchers of solution culture found out that soil not only supports plants’ roots, but that it is also an important deliverer of nutrients for a plant to grow. The most basic ones are called NPK which translates into Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. Microorganisms naturally help to control the pH level in soil, which influences how well a plant can take up the nutrients in soil. If it’s too acid or alkaline, a plant’s ability to take up nutrients is affected.
However, after the research about solution culture and the first attempts of Gericke to commercialise Hydroponics, it took several decades for Hydroponics to gain popularity and interest from large companies. Eventually, in the late 20th century, NASA started experimenting with it as a method to grow food in space.
Watch Gerickes’ experiments at the University of California in 1936.
(no tone needed… old school black and white, silent documentary).
With these findings and knowledge, one could replicate artificially what plants need to grow healthy. Instead of using soil, other medias such as rock wool and coco support the plants’ roots. Nutrients are given into the water as nutrient solution. And water can be recycled, reducing by up to 90% the water consumption in comparison to soil based production.
Over the last decade, there has been much innovation around artificial lights as well. They have become more and more efficient, with LED lights being even able to grow without any natural light whatsoever and changing the light spectrum to cater different plants. Together with the concept of hydroponics, this essentially enables people to grow food indoors in a controlled environment regardless of the composition of soil and the changing weather conditions. Indoor food production was born!
The commercialisation of hydroponic farms
Ever since, governments and private held companies have been exploring the potential of hydroponics, growing mainly lettuce, tomatos and herbs on a large scale stacking one on top of the other in what we call “vertical farms”. One popular model is to grow vertically in shipping containers – like the start-up Square Roots, co-founded by Elon Musk’s younger brother Kimbal Musk.
Those farms can produce in under 320 square feet the equivalent of up to two acres of traditional farmland generating $20-40/week, year-round, hyper locally.
Hydroponics require a high upfront investment for installation, specific knowledge to operate and are still not very profitable due to its maintenance costs (especially heating). In addition, every plant species has what I called earlier “their sweet spot”. You can’t simply grow everything together in the same system because different plants have different needs. This makes it more complicated for farmers to grow with Hydroponics. They need to have the knowledge to understand what pH-range, light spectrum, temperature, humidity setting, nutrient solution and much more the plants like. And even with the knowledge, it is quite complicated to collect and analyse the data to be able to act accordingly. There is little automation that helps Hydroponic farmers to use their systems more efficiently.
What about the taste?
Other critiques say the food tastes differently. Probably you think it is because of the artificial light. But in fact, with artificial light we are now able to give plants specifically the light spectrum they need, building a better condition than the sun is able to by itself.
The taste is mostly dependent on the nutrient solution and the plants’ nutrient intake. This is also why e.g. the same type of apple tastes differently depending on where they come from. If you are not familiar with hydroponics, you quickly can end up giving your plants either too much or not enough nutrients – in which either way isn’t good. Mother nature is so wonderful, it does all of this naturally. It does take some efforts for us to simulate this mastery, but as our world is changing there is a high need for it.
With a greater understanding on what plants need and the ability to automate processes, we are able to grow plants just as well as mother nature does. We can be more sustainable and smarter about usage of urban space, farm land and food transport. It allows us to produce certain foods hyper locally, even in large cities.
From a personal perspective, I don’t think hydroponic farms will replace traditional farming entirely. However, a century after Gerickes’ work, we are at a tipping point where these farms become a commercially valid alternative. They have a growing importance in how we will produce food in the near future.
Please note that this is a general summary of the development and research of Hydroponics and does not reflect historic events according to exact timeline. If you are interested to read more about it, you can find a detailed history about hydroponics here.
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