When you think of agriculture, what do you imagine? If you’re like most people, you’re probably thinking of rolling hills, farmers on tractors and the whole idyllic scene. However, that particular method isn’t a very sustainable option for over 7 billion people. This is why the idea of a controlled environment for agriculture came about.
Controlled Environment Agriculture, or CEA, is the idea of taking a farm and moving it inside. This way, all the factors can be controlled and accounted for. Temperature, water and even pests can be reduced or eliminated. Actually, this is the same way they grow plants on the International Space Station.
Essentially, anyone can make a CEA. Any kind of indoor environment where you can control the heat, water and light gives you the best chance of getting your plants to grow well. This is the same idea behind large-scale CEAs. The more factors you can control for, the more you can optimize the plant’s growth and yield.
Aeroponics is basically gardening or farming without soil. It does not imply that the plants only grow in air, despite the name. It allows farmers to grow plants in a whole new way. Most of the time, the plants will be grown in water, such as in hydroponics. However, in some cases and with some plants, you can actually grow them in air.
Any plant that’s being grown for commercial purposes is going to need water. Unfortunately, we still can’t eat air plants. Instead, most aeroponics systems combine the idea of hydroponics with drip irrigation. The roots are misted with a potent mix of water and nutrients. When done properly, this allows the plants to grow well, without wasting water or risking root rot.
However, these new technologies are more labor-intensive than just leaving the plants out to the elements. The necessary skill set is higher and it can be expensive to set up. However, aeroponic systems tend to increase yield and the fields lose fewer crops due to environmental factors. Since the system is indoors and doesn’t use soil, that also helps prevent pest damage.
If you’ve been grocery shopping lately, you may have noticed hydroponic lettuce. This is not new technology — it’s just new that it’s being used to grow enough lettuce to sell in the grocery store! Hydroponics is a pretty simple method for growing plants, where you simply skip the soil. Instead, the roots are directly in water fortified with all the nutrients the plants might need.
This has some obvious benefits. The pH of the water would be much easier to test and adjust, to optimize the plant’s growth. It would also eliminate the need to buy soil, although you would still have to purchase fertilizer. The biggest point, however, is that it increases crop yield. Commercial farmers can harvest 3,000 heads of lettuce a week from a single greenhouse.
However, the use of all that water is less than ideal. It utilizes large quantities of water and it’s heavy. That makes it hard to move and lift. They also tend to be more labor-intensive and expensive. But, if you can improve the yield that much, it might be worth it.
Aquaponics is similar to hydroponics, as the name suggests. The main difference is that it uses fish. That might sound a bit odd, but it works — and it helps cut down on the cost of a traditional hydroponic system. Fish waste provides a lot of nutrients and can include almost everything the plants need. It also has ammonia in it, which is harmful to the fish.
The basic idea is to have a fish tank, then take the water from the tank and pump it up to the plants. The grow bed the plants are in has bacteria that eats the ammonia and, in return, gives off nitrogen. The water then cycles back down to the fish, cleaned and ammonia-free. It’s a symbiotic relationship, with each side benefitting from the other.
This is a low-cost system that doesn’t need a ton of maintenance. If you can keep both the fish and the plants alive, then all you have to buy is fish food. So, if you run it long enough and sell your products, the system will end up paying for its self fairly quickly.
With overpopulation and climate change looming issues, conserving land and mitigating environmental consequences is important. So, despite the fact that these systems do have some negative aspects, they’re more than worth it. We need all the innovation we can get to feed a growing population on the same amount of land!
This is a guest post written by Megan Ray Nichols.
Megan Ray Nichols is a science writer and the editor of Schooled By Science. She enjoys discussing scientific discoveries and exploring the world around her. Follow her on twitter @nicholsrmegan.