Eco City Ideas: Hydroponics, the urban face of Agriculture 2.0

Hunger and water scarcity are but two sides of the same coin, both in urban India as well as in farming communities depleting their reserves of arable land. We desperately need for traditional practices of soil-based agriculture to be complemented by more productive and ecologically-sustainable forms of modern agriculture. These modern practices need to be cognizant of our modern day challenges of de-forestation, overly complex distribution of perishables, overuse of water for irrigation, excessive use of transportation fuels, and the rising menace of food price inflation.

Hydroponics, a technology for soil-less farming of fresh vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers in a specially formulated nutrient-mix substrate, is now ripe for use in back-yard, roof-top, greenhouse, and commercial farming. The practice has been around for a number of decades, but recent innovations have allowed this technology to grab the discerning eye of green-tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The value proposition is abundantly clear, especially in land and soil deprived urban areas. It is a mode of agriculture that does not need soil and hence can be practiced just about anywhere with the right tools, that needs 90% less water than soil irrigation, that can grow in-demand non-native produce, that can grow them faster with significantly higher yields and therefore revenues, that can be productive on a year-round basis, that is less prone to soil borne diseases and micronutrient deficiencies, that needs less growing area per unit of organic output, and finally, that if practiced well enhances the flavor and nutritional content of food. Much like in the renewable arena, hydroponics is a form of agriculture that enables distributed production, where farmer/producer and consumer are brought closer to one another while eliminating wastage.

So the key feasibility questions remain: What early successes have proven the solution? How costly and available are the hydroponics options? Which hydroponics business models may be attractive in places like India?

Successes:

There are diverse examples of hydroponics projects across the globe, with varying levels of innovation, scale and success. Relevant to hydroponics to urban locales, Changi General Hospital in Singapore uses rooftop farming to now meet most of its fresh food needs. Gotham Greens prides itself as New York’s first commercial rooftop ‘closed loop’ hydroponics operation, in which plants are being grown directly in nutrient-enriched water that is carefully cleaned and recycled back into the system, and solar-powered pumps are feeding nutrient-enriched rainwater to an acre of greenhouse space. ProMedica Health System network of clinics has used the roof of a hospital in Toledo, OH, to grow using hydroponics more than 200 pounds of vegetables and then serve them to patients and a nearby food shelter. This project led to the setup of eight more vertical gardens throughout underserved areas of Toledo. The Woman of Hope Project in Hyderabad, at the Center for Promotion of Simplified Hydroponics, shows different ways of setting up hydroponics for generating livelihoods for women. Atul Kalaskar uses hydroponics to grow strawberries, and believes that as small and marginal farmers become more competitive by moving up the chain of activities such as drip-irrigation, poly-houses and cooperatives, they will eventually aspire to going soil-less in hydroponics. The Pet Bharo (meaning “fill your stomach”) project in India, affiliated with the Institute of Simplified Hydroponics, provides training, consulting services, agricultural inputs and testing services for setting up simplified hydroponics as well as commercial hydroponics.

Some of the more capital and technology intensive projects are AeroFarms, which is building hydroponics farms in containers stacked on top of each other in warehouses and old buildings, lit by LED lamps that also provide pest control when set to emit certain wavelengths. Cityscape Farms in San Francisco is developing rooftop organic greenhouses that use hydroponics along with aquaculture, in which the nutrient mix for the hydroponics is organically fertilized with fish waste produced from tilapia fish raised on-site. The water is then cleaned and recycled back into the fish tanks to complete the loop. One of the most technology-intensive hydroponics projects, and one that was voted one of Time Magazine’s Top 50 Best Innovations of 2009, is Valcent’s ‘Vertical Farming Technology.’ His VertiCrop innovation grows non-GM plants in rotating rows one on top of another, feeding them precise amounts of light and nutrients while using the vertical stacking to use far less water than conventional farming. And, by growing upward instead of outward, he can expand food production without using more land. He claims to be able to increase production volume for field crops up to 20 times over, while using as little as 5% of the normal water supply. One final examples of very large scale operation is Eurofresh’s 274-acre hydroponic greenhouse in southeastern Arizona, where more than 200 million pounds of tomatoes were produced in 2007.

Cost:

With regard to cost, here are some initial resources for gathering information. Vincent Dessberg, a rooftop hydroponic farmer in Sarasota, FL, growing fruits & vegetables, says he spent $25,000 to set up his facility, including the cost of his 6,000 plants growing vertically in 180 hydroponic planters. One could visualize his capex and opex needing to be much higher for a commercial setup that needed to pump water through sophisticated sensors that automatically adjust nutrient and acidity levels in the water. Dinesh Rao, a relatively new hydroponics practitioner in India who carefully manages his water and nutrient mix, says a capex of ~Rupees 100,000-150,000 ($2,200-3,300) was required to set up a 1000-plant capacity, giving 10 tons of annual tomato output. The cost of a high-end hydroponics greenhouse, using state of the art technologies for lighting, water, nutrients and so on would probably need to be offset by sales into premium organic retail channels such as a Whole Foods, and export markets. Lower-end simplified hydroponics farms, which is the focus of my study here, is usually based on a static solution culture (compared to a continuous flow solution culture, or an aeroponics culture) or a solid-medium culture, and a powder (rather than liquid) nutrient mixture, and would also get the job done though at lower yield. Low-cost greenhouses and polyhouses would be key to designing a sustainable hydroponics model for growing affordably priced foods. Another convenient benefit of running such as project in tropical India, where greenhouse heating and humidity is not as much of an issue, is that less energy is required for the operation. In general, key cost drivers would be availability of affordable nutrient mix, access to training and quality analysis, and technology-level that is matched to the buyers’ requirements.

Models:

Low-cost hydroponics greenhouses (along with grading and packing area), built around distributed production with close proximity to consumers, can be a stabilizing factor in food production and retail. The model would need to capitalize on the predictability of producing year-round nutrient-rich vegetables, extract cost savings from increased yields, and adequately market the health benefits of pesticide-free produce. But this would make sense only if an affordable and stable price point is achieved for the produce. In urban India, one business model possibility would be to build a showcase hydroponics greenhouse on the rented terrace of a chain of hospitals, much like in some of the examples provided above, prove the model for a select range of fruit-bearing and leafy crops required by the hospital and the nearby community, and then franchise out the model across the rest of their network. The initial phase of this project would need to involve R&D into technology and the nutrient mix requirements for different families of crop. Over time, the business could then be expanded to co-locate (I’m using this term loosely) greenhouses with farmer’s markets and restaurants that need fresh produce, animal farms that require fodder crops, and specialty retailers that need flower/ornamental crops and condiments. Another more scale-oriented model would be to develop a high-tech vertical farm, expressly to supply large-format quality-sensitive food retailers such as Reliance Fresh. All of these models could provide employment to low-skilled labor, and stay true to their mission of local consumption by not entering into the logistics heavy export market.

On the related topic of quality, there is something to consider on the ‘organic’ versus ‘inorganic’ hydroponics front. With food inflation continuing to rise, one can imagine shoppers who spend more needing more alternatives to expensive, imported and organic vegetables. They may gladly gravitate towards the next best thing – fresh vegetables grown hydroponically, and locally by farmers right in their community. Note: hydroponic farms can use both organic and inorganic (i.e. artificially-made, the more popular) nutrient mixtures, and it is unclear as to whether the former option provides adequate yields and other benefits. I am therefore reluctant to suggest that going the more expensive organic-fertilizer route is worth it for affordable hydroponics.

In closing, did you know that more than half of the world’s plants already grow hydroponically? I’m referring to the oceans, where there is no soil and plants draw their nutrients directly from the sea water around them. It is worth appreciating that hydroponics is simply taking a cue from nature and applying it to our life on land. It is now up to our innovators and financiers to make this commercially viable on a grand scale.

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