The idea sounds as if it is taken directly from a Sci-Fi film, but don’t be surprised to hear that it is already a reality! Normally, crops and other plants are grown in soil and many times, a specific type of soil is chosen depending on what will help the plant grow better or faster. In soil-based agriculture, plants can be grown either at a field or in designated pots. Seeds are planted in the soil where they can absorb different nutrients and grow in full health. Fertilizers can also be applied to increase yields while pesticides can also be used to minimise the spread of pests and other bugs.
The obvious difference with soilless agriculture is the absence of soil. But do the differences end there? How can soilless agriculture really work and how does it compare to soil-based agriculture?
In soilless agriculture, for the plants to grow they need a different medium to do so. In soilless agriculture, the most well-known medium to grow plants in is water, otherwise known as hydroponics. But there are also other forms of soilless agriculture such as aeroponics (where plants are grown in an air or mist environment) or other media such as expanded clay pebbles, stonewool or gravel¹.
Given that soil is not required, soilless agriculture is better suited for urban environments or in areas where there is limited space.
Soilless agriculture is also plant growth system that helps removes some issues that can create stress to plants, such as the availability of nutrients in the soil. In soilless agriculture, crops access directly the required minerals and nutrients for growth, so they do not have to search for nutrients themselves. In addition, in soilless agriculture nutrients required by plants are determined in advance and so plants don’t have to compete for nutrients with each other. This allows crops to grow faster and in a larger size¹,². As is the case with nutrients, water is also monitored and controlled so whereas in soil-based and land-based agriculture, water is absorbed into the ground with a large part of that not directly benefiting the plant, in soilless agriculture water goes directly to the plant and can be adjusted depending on plant needs³. According to research, because the conditions they are planted in are optimised for growth – even the light and air they receive is monitored – plants can grow up to 50% faster².
Furthermore, because soilless agriculture usually takes place in closed or indoor spaces it is not at the mercy of adverse weather conditions such as drought, wind and floods that plague soil-based agriculture. This means that the yield is not impacted by changing or unexpected weather conditions and as such it also fluctuates much less compared to soil-based agriculture³.
Because soilless agriculture is tailored to optimise plant growth and it does so in a protected environment, plants don’t require the use of fertilisers. This means that potentially toxic chemicals that pose a threat to our health and our environment are not needed. In sharp contrast, soil-based agriculture requires the use of fertilizers and pesticides to protect plants from pests¹.
Given its many benefits, soilless agriculture is a technology many in the agriculture and food industry are closely looking at. And who knows, maybe in a few years the only thing we will need to go to get some fresh fruit and vegetables is go into the room next door!