Hello Readers! From our previous blog, you have gotten to know about the technique of hydroponics and the different ways it can be implemented. Despite being interested in hydroponics, you may be having second thoughts – ‘Is hydroponics right for me?’. Trust us, this is a good question to ask before you decide to go ‘all-in’ with hydroponics based farming. If you’re looking for a bird’s eye view of the upsides and downsides of hydroponic farming – you’re definitely going to love this post! We will be totally up front with you and help you make an unbiased decision through this post.
First, let us take a look at the advantages of hydroponic farming
With hydroponics, you can grow crops in places where arable land is limited, doesn’t exist, or is heavily contaminated. In the 1940s, hydroponics was successfully used to supply fresh vegetables for troops in Wake Island, a refuelling stop for Pan American airlines. Also, hydroponics has been considered as the farming of the future to grow foods for astronauts in space by NASA under their biofarming initiative.
2. Optimal utilization of space and location
Since all the plants need are provided and maintained within the system, you can grow in your small apartment, or the spare room as long as you have some space. Plants’ roots usually expand and spread out in search of nutrients and oxygen in the soil. However, in hydroponics, the roots are sunk in the oxygenated nutrient solution and are in direct contact with vital minerals. This enables growing your plants much closer, and consequently optimal space utilization.
3. Climate Control
Like in greenhouses, hydroponic growers can have total control over the climate – temperature, humidity, light intensification, etc. In this sense, you can grow foods all year round regardless of the season. Farmers can produce foods at the appropriate time to maximize their business profits.
4. Judicious use of water
Through the recirculation systems, plants grown hydroponically can use only 10% of water compared to field-grown ones. Plants will take up the necessary water, while run-off can return to the system. Water loss only occurs in two forms – evaporation and leaks (but an efficient hydroponic setup will minimize or not have any leaks). It is estimated that agriculture uses up to 70% of all freshwater withdrawals globally (World Bank Report). While water will become a critical issue in the future when food production is expected to increase, hydroponics is considered a viable solution to large-scale food production.
5. Optimising the plant nutrition and pH control
In hydroponics, you have 100% control of the nutrients (foods) that plants need. Before planting, growers can check what plants require and the specific amounts of nutrients needed at particular stages and mix them with water accordingly. Nutrients are conserved in the tank, so there are no losses or changes of nutrients like they are in the soil. Moreover, you can measure and adjust the pH levels of your water mixture much more easily compared to the soils, to ensure the optimal nutrients uptake for plants.
6. Significantly better plant growth
With plants placed in ideal conditions and sufficient nutrient amounts directly in contact with the plant roots – plants no longer waste valuable energy searching for nutrients. Instead, they shift all of their focus on growing and producing fruits.
7. No recurring problems due to weeds
If you have grown in the soil, you will understand how irritating weeds cause to your garden. It’s one of the most time-consuming tasks for gardeners – till, plow, hoe, and so on. Weeds are mostly associated with the soil, the elimination of which takes away the concerns of weed infestation.
8. Fewer pests and diseases
Like weeds, getting rid of soil helps make your plants less vulnerable to soil-borne pests and diseases. Also when growing indoors in a closed system, the gardeners can easily take control of most surrounding variables and implement innovative methods like ‘Integrated Pest Management’.
9. Lesser or no use of insecticides or harmful chemicals
Since you are using no soils and while the weeds, pests, and plant diseases are heavily reduced, there are fewer chemicals used. This helps you grow cleaner and healthier foods. Moreover, given the integrated nature of hydroponic systems, synthetic pesticides are not advisable and cannot be used. Instead, several hydroponic growers resort to using biopesticides like Neem-Oil which are effective in pest control and are not harmful either.
10. Technologically intensive instead of labor and time-intensive
Besides spending fewer man-hours on tilling, watering, cultivating, and fumigating weeds and pests, you enjoy much time saved because plant growth is proven to be higher in hydroponics. When agriculture is planned to be more technology-based, hydroponics has room in it.
11. A potential stress-relieving hobby
This interest will put you back in touch with nature. Tired after a long working day and commute, you return to your small apartment corner, it’s time to lay back everything and play with your hydroponic garden. Reasons like lack of spaces are no longer right. You can start fresh, tasty vegetables, or vital herbs in your small spaces, and enjoy the relaxing time with your little green spaces. Seems like there are lots of benefits of hydroponics which can persuade you into hydroponic farming.
Keep reading to get to know about the downsides of hydroponic farming.
1. Higher commitment than the soil-based counterpart
Just like any worthwhile aspect in life, a hard-working and responsible attitude gives satisfactory yields. However, in conventional farming, plants can be left on their own for a few days, and they still survive in that short time. Mother nature and soil will help regulate if something is not balanced. That’s not the case in hydroponics.
Plants will die out more quickly without proper care and adequate knowledge. Remember that your plants depend on you for survival. Automation can solve a few issues, but you still need to gauge and prevent unexpected operational issues and do frequent maintenance.
2. Need of experience and technical know-how
You are running a system consisting of several types of equipment, which may require specific expertise for their usage, what plants you can grow, and how they can survive and thrive in a soilless environment. Any mistake in setting up the system and you end up ruining your whole progress.
3. Organic Debate
There have been some heated arguments about whether hydroponics should be certified as organic or not. People are questioning whether plants grown hydroponically will get microbiomes as they are in the soil. Nevertheless, people around the world have grown plants through hydroponics – lettuces, tomatoes, strawberries, etc. for tens of years. They have provided food for millions of people. You cannot expect perfection from anything in life. Even for soil growing, there are still more risks of pesticides, pests, etc. compared to hydroponics.
There are some organic growing methods suggested for hydroponic growers. For example, some growers provide microbiomes for plants by using organic growing media such as cocopeat and adding worm casting into it. Modified systems like decoupled aquaponics (which combines recirculating aquaculture with hydroponics) and the use of natural nutrients such as fish waste, worm-tea, alfalfas, cotton-seeds, neem, etc can be a way forward.
4. Water and Electricity risks
In a hydroponic system, mostly you use water and electricity. Beware of electricity in combination with water in close proximity. Always put safety first when working with the water systems and electric equipment, especially in commercial greenhouses. Moreover, owing to the lack of preliminary actions for a power outage, the system will stop working immediately, and plants may dry out quickly and will die in several hours. Hence, a backup power source and plan should always be planned, especially for large-scale systems.
5. High capital expenditure and long ROI
You are sure to spend under thousands to tens of thousand rupees (depending on your scale) to purchase equipment for your first installation. Whatever systems you build, you will need containers, lights, a pump, growing media, nutrients, and automation equipment if any). However, once the system has been in place, the cost will be reduced to only nutrients and electricity. If you follow news on agriculture start-ups, you may have known that there have been several new indoor hydroponic businesses. However, some commercial growers still face some big challenges when starting with hydroponics on a large scale. This is because of the high initial expenses and the long ROI (return on investment).
6. Diseases and pests may spread quickly
You are growing plants in a closed system using water. In the case of plant
infections or pests, they can escalate fast to plants in the same nutrient reservoir. In most cases, diseases and pests are not so much of a problem in a small system of home growers.
So don’t care much about these issues if you are a beginner. It’s only complicated for big hydroponic greenhouses. So better to have a good
disease management plan beforehand. For example, use just clean disease-free
water sources and growing materials; checking the systems periodically, etc. Should the disease happen, you need to sterilize the infected water, nutrients, and the whole system fast.
So would we still recommend Hydroponics?
Absolutely! There are downsides to Hydroponics, just like any other thing in life. But you can overcome most of them with some proper planning, market research, and prior knowledge. The market for Hydroponics is expected to expand dramatically in the coming years. The global Hydroponics market is valued at USD 9.5 billion (2020) and is forecast to account for a CAGR of 11.9% from 2020 – 2025 (Markets & Markets Report).
Additionally, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, many individuals have developed a critical point of view towards food. With health and food safety becoming the key focus, the populations around the globe have shown more inclination towards home-cooking and being informed about their food supply chain. This indeed gave a new twist to the food and hospitality industry. In the post-COVID scenario, the adoption rate of urban hydroponic farming systems around the world is estimated to rise sharply. Hydroponics can be the key – to solving the labour/supply-chain issues and ensuring a year-round supply of fresh residue-free food.
We hope that this article has given you some light on Hydroponics. And whether one likes it or not, we have to admit that Hydroponics is always a part of modern agriculture and can be the farming of the future with a proven competitive edge over its conventional counterparts.