Our current global situation is quickly emphasizing the vast issues of food shortages around the world, especially in impoverished areas. We’re more connected than ever due to technology, and with the influx of media and social groups focusing on the issues surrounding these areas, scientists and philosophers alike are looking for new solutions. Currently, at least 1 in 7 people aren’t getting the sustenance they need. This food shortage is only expected to increase as the global population continues to grow exponentially. Everywhere, we’re looking for solutions; from our own backyards to labs overseas, the crisis is demanding attention.
The dream of solving world hunger is by no means a new one. The difference is that now we have practical methods of implementing a solution. A developing solution that’s been proposed is the use of hydroponic systems. Hydroponic gardening offers increased crop yields while using less of the traditional resources used in soil-grown crops.
What factors contribute to the hunger crisis?
There are a lot of reasons that the global hunger crisis continues to grow. Remember, hunger is affecting people everywhere. Not just the arid countries you’ve never visited, not just the community you saw on the news; hunger exists everywhere and it comes in many forms. From impoverished countries where citizens may go hungry for days to cities in developed countries where school children don’t have access to fresh produce, to rural areas where food is scarce, all these forms of hunger are prevalent. It would be a monumental undertaking to list every single factor that contributes to global hunger. However, to really grasp the problem and thereby understand the facets of hydroponics that create a solution, we need to look at some of the most basic, common factors of global hunger:
Climate and environmental factors
Climate change is a huge factor contributing to food shortages, and it isn’t expected to let up. Flooding, irregular weather patterns, drought, the changing of conditions during traditional growing seasons, all make growing food harder. Where weather patterns and average temperatures used to be predictable and reliable, farming could be put on a regular schedule, and crop yields were more or less predictable. That’s no longer as stable and as a result, crop yields are in flux globally.
Poverty shouldn’t affect whether or not people can get reliable sources of food, but it sadly almost always does. Everyone has heard (or very likely uttered) the phrase, “but healthy food is SO much more expensive.” And that’s a pretty fair statement. For the price of a spaghetti squash weighing about 2.5 lbs, just about any fast food meal can be had instead and for even less money. Unfortunately, the human body wasn’t meant to exist by depending on empty calories. Even in areas where food is accessible, it still might not meet nutritional needs. In impoverished areas, there isn’t even this less nutritious but still edible alternative.
Transport and Access
Access to food isn’t always as easy as going to the grocery store or food pantry. Sometimes people suffer from food insecurity as a result of their own lack of transportation to food sources. That’s a problem that can be mitigated by an in-home hydroponic system. However, we need to recognize the source of the majority of our crops as well. About 70% of our crops are grown in remote or rural locations. That means they require transportation to reach most people. This in turn means a heavy reliance on fossil fuels, creating more expenses involved in food transport.
Why should we stop looking for answers in traditional soil farming?
To be fair, traditional farming is an important staple to many people worldwide, and they rely on it to produce the crops they buy in the supermarket or eat in restaurants. Likewise, soil farmers rely on soil-grown crops to provide their livelihood. But in terms of helping to provide a solution to the global hunger pandemic? Maybe not so much. So, let’s briefly look at the reasons soil farming isn’t the ideal or most efficient solution:
First, a lot of impoverished areas don’t have the resources to support much traditional farming, nor the economy to support farming that would grow enough crops to provide sustenance. When it’s used in desperate regions, there’s often an issue of unregulated pesticides and chemicals, which then run off into natural water supplies. That means main sources of water are no longer safe to drink. Not only that, most farming uses sprinkler irrigation which actually loses about 60% of the water used. In countries where water is as inaccessible, or more so than food, that presents a pretty big problem.
Then, you have the issue of cost. Traditional farming costs far outweigh those of hydroponic farming, and it produces less crop yield versus that of a hydroponic system. The last big point to make is that farming is seasonal. At least in the vast majority of cases. That takes a big chunk out of the usability of the land for food production and essentially leaves land unused despite the scarcity of arable land.
What makes hydroponics an ideal solution?
Hydroponics has been the hot word in a lot of conversations lately, but it seems like the discussions are taking place primarily in more affluent, developed regions. We know it excels as a method of gardening (at least in our homes and hobbies) but what makes hydroponics such a good solution for ending world hunger?
It answers the problem of land shortages
In many areas, arable land isn’t available or if it is, it’s very sparse. That means a lot of people don’t have the means to produce their own food, much less the money to purchase it. Hydroponic systems don’t require acres of land to produce significant crop yields. They require very little space for the number of crops that can be produced in a single system. Because of this, individual or shared systems can produce food in any community.
It answers the problem of limited resources in growing crops
Traditional farming and gardening aren’t always readily accessible and oftentimes that is, in part, due to a lack of resources. The traditional methods require much to produce a successful crop. That means a lot of water, land, fertilizer, pesticides, and labor. Hydroponics uses significantly less of these, and none of some of them (pesticides are rarely if ever used). In fact, hydroponic systems can use up to 90% less water than soil farming. This knocks down several barriers for individuals faced with hunger and a lack of resources.
It can be used worldwide, regardless of climate or situation
One of the great things about hydroponics is that it can be used just about anywhere. Regardless of climate, hydroponic systems can be used in conjunction with greenhouses and heaters to ensure crop growth. Likewise, whether located in a rural or urban environment hydroponic systems thrive.
Materials for systems can easily be acquired
While there is a cost associated with any system start-up, many of the components needed for a hydroponic system can be found or acquired easily. That means that items like an old fish tank (so long as it doesn’t leak), spare gardening pots, barrels, old trays, and so much more can go into the creation of a hydroponic system, without the need to have money to purchase many components.
Can a hydroponic system provide enough nutritional content?
This is a common question, especially in more westernized countries. Oftentimes we greatly overestimate the amount of protein required in our diets. Likewise, we also tend to greatly underestimate the protein that can be provided in a vegetable and fruit-based diet. People need about 10-35% of their daily caloric intake to come from protein, which means about 50 grams daily (depending on age and weight). A hydroponic system is capable of providing significantly more than that. For example, the protein content of one cup of green peas is 9 grams. A hydroponic garden with about 30 plants per person (assuming this was the only protein source) can yield up to 6 lbs per harvest. With the ability to grow up to 5 harvests yearly, there’s enough protein to support the needs of most individuals.
Note: this is just an example to show how even the daily nutrition we think can’t come from produce, in fact, can and does. It’s still important to diversify our nutrition sources.
What about our other nutritional requirements?
That’s pretty much a nonissue. Since hydroponic systems can be used to grow just about any plant, that means we can use them to provide all our daily requirements. Nutrients like calcium, potassium, and vitamins can be found in many fruits and vegetables, and in more than sufficient quantities. The best way to ensure all our daily nutritional needs are met is through diversity. By setting up a hydroponic garden with various plants, a single system has the potential to provide all the nutrients people need. Alternatively, individuals can grow specific crops and trade or barter with neighbors to help meet each other’s needs.
Where can hydroponics be used?
Anywhere. Yes, hydroponics can be used to grow plants just about anywhere, so long as considerations such as temperature, light, and ventilation are also modified to fit the climate. The plus side to adding in considerations to mitigate otherwise harsh environments is that hydroponic systems still remain accessible, and pretty easily modified to the grower’s needs.
Nasa began hydroponic research and development to provide a way to grow plants in space. So, if we can achieve a healthy hydroponic harvest in space, it’s more than safe to say we can do it anywhere on earth. That means from the Arctic circle to desert climates, to areas that are poverty-stricken and lack verdant land. Hydroponic systems can be put into huge warehouse-sized greenhouses or tiny unused spaces in already cramped apartments. So, when you hear ‘hydroponic crops can be grown anywhere,’ believe it.
How does it help?
It provides food that people need. Obviously, that’s far too simple an answer when you look at all the benefits hydroponic growing provides to individuals and communities. The neat thing about it is that hydroponics really can help people in a large variety of ways, and those ways change depending on their needs.
For impoverished areas where food is scarce, it’s a much more affordable, more sustainable option. Not only that, it can be done by the individuals in need rather than requiring money to purchase sustenance. Plus, it provides a valid source of income to many families in these areas. It’s been shown that a single hydroponic garden can provide upwards of $90 to around $250 every couple of months in impoverished areas in places like South America and Asia. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot to those of us that live in first-world countries, but for the vast number of people that have to survive on less than $1 daily (and would be lucky to earn as much), that’s literally a life-changing garden. That’s a livelihood.
Hydroponics even benefits those who are not food insecure like in developing countries, but that struggle to get enough nutrition even in the first world. Low-income families can take advantage of hydroponic gardening as a means to supplement their diet with wholesome food that they may otherwise struggle to obtain. Even food secure individuals can use a hydroponic garden to eat healthier and put a dent in their grocery bill.
In many developing countries, there’s less regulation regarding the use of chemicals and pesticides in crops for consumption. This puts vulnerable populations at even more risk, as they’re often aren’t alternative food sources. Hydroponic gardens don’t require the chemical elements of traditional farming, nor do they produce harmful runoff or cause undrinkable water and harmful algae blooms. So, it helps us maintain our environmental health too.
What resources are needed?
A lot of the uninitiated picture hydroponic gardens as the commercial-scale greenhouses that appear so frequently in images. The truth is, any hydroponic method of growing is scalable and therefore doesn’t require a huge greenhouse setup. The essential elements to construct a hydroponic system consist of:
- A tank or water reservoir
- Growing medium
- Trays or towers to secure plants
- Nutrients (aka plant food or hydroponic fertilizers)
- Supplemental lighting
- A water pump (for many types of systems, but it is not required for all)
- Heating (in some systems this may or may not be required)
- Suitable seeds, seedlings, or transplantable plants
Some of these essential components are easier to come by than others. As noted before, even old fish tanks or large ceramic pots can be used in lieu of a traditional reservoir. As far as water pumps go, wick systems don’t require one, so when push comes to shove, hydroponic systems can be constructed to work without a pump if the cost is an issue. In cold climates, heating will be required, but as we’ve seen through Iceland’s example (by using geothermal vents to heat greenhouses year-round), it can certainly be done.
Growing mediums come in so many forms that it’s almost difficult to think of a scenario in which they aren’t accessible. Whether perlite, rice husks, or stone wool, there are several options that fit any type of hydroponic grower.
Trays are easily constructed from readily available materials for growing plants horizontally, as are materials to construct towers to grow plants vertically.
Many of the resources that require electricity (such as pumps, lighting, heat, ventilation) can be made not only more efficient, but more accessible with the use of batteries, generators, and/or solar power.
Seeds and plants will be easily found in some areas and may be difficult to obtain in others. Where seeds are difficult to come by, they can be obtained either through ordering, bartering or with the aid of humanitarian organizations.
While there is an issue of water shortages, it is more easily overcome than you might expect. Some solutions include gathering rainwater, treating existing water sources, and using a recycling system for hydroponics. Compared to the water requirements for farming, the water demands of hydroponics are minimal.
Obtaining nutrients can be done in several ways. The nutrient solution can be bought in wholesale bulk, and created through homemade methods (so long as the nutrient ratios and EC testing are done properly).
Is there data that support the use of hydroponics in food insecure areas?
While simplified hydroponic projects have been implemented in some food-insecure areas since as early as the 1980s in Latin American and African countries, there are enough studies and projects from then to the present that do show hydroponics can be put to good use in these nutrition deficient places. In short, not only is there data that supports hydroponic use in these areas but there are also successfully implemented projects that demonstrate the utility of hydroponics.
Another case of a successfully planned large-scale hydroponic implementation was staged in tropical Asia by Bradley and Marulanda. They found that by establishing 50 million hydroponics gardens, they could support the nutritional needs of the 232 million individuals suffering from food insecurity. That’s factoring an average family size of 4, with some room for variation. These gardens would cost about $355 not just for initial set up, but for an entire year’s supplies to keep it running including nutrient solution as well as seeds.
While this may seem like a large investment when taking poverty issues into account, looking at the revenue figures provides a clearer perspective:
Total project cost: $20 billion
Single garden setup and 1st-year costs: $355
Total project yearly revenue: $135 billion
Single garden yearly revenue: up to $1405
Variations of hydroponic gardening provide even further reach
If you’re unfamiliar with aeroponics, it’s a newer type of hydroponic system, also used by NASA in research for growing plants in outer space. As more minds contribute to the solution of solving world hunger, we see more innovation. Part of using hydroponics to fix hunger is getting innovators and contributors to expand solutions.
One such case comes from a recent product design grad that took aeroponics to an accessible level. Nikian Aghababaiecreated is a low-cost aeroponic kit that uses entirely locally sourced and recycled materials and has hardly any maintenance costs. Using locally sourced seaweed a nutrient solution is created (and yes, it’s totally adequate for growth and has proper EC levels), so even the cost of nutrient solution is taken out of the equation.
While this isn’t as widespread as the traditional hydroponic systems we’ve been talking about, it just reminds us how important it is to continue innovating and watching for solutions that leverage hydroponic technology to make food go farther.
So what’s our main takeaway here?
Hydroponics provides a formidable solution for solving hunger, but it also provides us ample room to continue building, improving, and extending accessibility. And we’ll need that to conquer a huge issue like world hunger.
How can using hydroponics as a solution to global hunger be accomplished?
Look, global hunger is no small issue. It can’t be tackled overnight, and it’s going to take a lot of work and cooperation to make a solution work. The beauty of using hydroponic systems to alleviate the hunger pandemic is that it can start small and grow into a much larger solution. Hydroponics can be started in a single home and grow into a community-wide project.
While the idea is great, we still have to consider what it will physically, financially, and logistically take to implement hydroponic systems to absolve our world of hunger. Hydroponic systems don’t need to be expensive or fancy, but at the end of the day, you still need materials to make one. Some components like a tank and growing tray are more easily acquired without cost. Items such as water pumps and testing kits will have to be purchased or donated. In addition, water will have to go through a purification process in many regions to make it usable. Supplies to create solar-powered systems, generators, and batteries will often need to be provided as well.
How can we get these supplies to food insecure areas?
That’s one of the hardest parts of implementing a solution to world hunger. In truth, it will take a lot of cooperation from international aid organizations, governments, and grassroots organizations. Global organizations like The World Bank and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization are already exploring and implementing hydroponic garden installations in food-insecure regions.
What scale are we looking at?
The global eradication of hunger is a project of massive scale, and the need for food is only expected to grow. By 2050 this need is predicted to rise at least 60%. There’s a lot of planning to be done to determine the exact scale of the systems that need to be implemented, but we can come up with some ballpark numbers in the meantime:
Let’s say 800 million people are currently food insecure (according to the latest UN statistic). Keep in mind that realistically the level of need in this group will vary anywhere from lacking fresh produce, to literally being on the verge of starvation. For our purposes, however, we’ll use this as a static figure.
Using the above studies as a baseline, we can simplify the problem to make the numbers easier to get our heads around. Assuming an average family size of 4 again, we can say that one garden supports one family.
To produce enough food for the currently 800 million food-insecure people, we will ultimately need about 173 million working hydroponic farms and gardens.
What kind of funding is needed to make this happen?
Donated supplies can be obtained to significantly reduce the cost of building these systems, and there are plenty of innovators creating low-cost kits to help implement hydroponic systems. To create a hydroponic system that’s able to support an average family, we’ll use the above figure of $355. That means to create sufficient hydroponics systems approximately $6.14 billion in funding would be needed. These costs can be subsidized by using recycled and donated materials, as well as using low-cost start-up kits where appropriate.
It’s unreasonable to expect any single entity to provide all the funding to implement this solution. Realistically, several different organizations will need to coordinate to provide not only funding and supplies but education and assistance.
Thinking small on a big scale
The truth of the matter is, hydroponics works better as a solution when we stop looking at it like traditional farming methods. That restrains our ability to create solutions with these systems. We can’t hope to make this happen overnight but through consistent effort and development, it can become a sustainable solution. There have been so many valuable studies that show hydroponic gardens provide more than food, they can provide a livelihood that supports families and sustains the growth of the garden.