Hydroponics technology to ensure food security

New tech advancements should be adopted for food sustainability, sustenance
DR AHMED KIANI July 22, 2019

Water, energy and food systems are inter-linked via a nexus. In the basic sense, one joule of energy produced, inputs into one drop of water distributed, which grows one calorie of food.

Similarly, a single drop of water inputs into a single joule of energy needed for one calorie of grain grown. Therefore, action on one system impacts the others.

This complexity is compounded by the fact that climatic conditions are deteriorating with time and a significant increase in global population is a major factor. Constant escalation in urbanization will require more water, energy and food resources in the future.

Water resources in Pakistan (30% above and 70% under-ground) are either scarce due to the declining fresh water reservoir table because of excess usage (50-55 million acre feet is pumped out and only 40-45 million acre feet is recharged and the aquifer is drained faster than it can be replenished) or disputed with bordering countries (such as Indus Waters Treaty 1960) or natural/man-made reserves are unavailable.

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The country has the lowest productivity per unit of water ie 0.13 kg/m3 in the region compared to India at 0.39 kg/m3 and China at 0.82 kg/m3. Consequently, Pakistan is fast closing in on per capita water availability of less than 1,000 cubic meters, which indicates the country is already water scarce and will be bone-dry by 2025.

Energy, on the other hand, is claimed to have reached the demand-supply parity at this point in time, but Pakistan’s growth projections (with 403 million projected inhabitants by 2050) indicate an exponential upsurge in demand (600% rise by 2030), requiring complementary expansions in energy generation, transmission and distribution networks. This means more fossil fuel or renewable energy-based additions to the national grid and more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Pakistan’s agriculture sector plays a central role in the economy as it contributes 19% to the gross domestic product (GDP) and absorbs 42% of the labour force. Food imports caused capital flight of $6.2 billion in fiscal year 2017-18, weighing on the fragile external account in the agriculture-based country.

With the financial woes such as increasing monetary borrowing, high taxation rates, lower net income, currency devaluation, high import bill, etc and resource mismanagement including shortage of cultivated land due to the real estate boom, water scarcity, etc, Pakistan needs to shift focus to home-grown crops in order to substitute imports and achieve self-sustenance.

Therefore, it is food security of the nexus equation which is under imminent threat as a result of the two variables in most developing countries such as Pakistan. Food security, by UN definition, means all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

Recent restrictions on fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) imports through statutory regulatory orders (SROs) for the promotion of self-sustenance in agriculture, efficient use of resources, promotion of local produce and less reliance on global market commodity price fluctuations, are action points which should be converted successfully to ensure food security and sustainability in the country.

Emerging agri-techniques

This can either be achieved through an increased yield of the current landscape (72% cultivated area of the total agricultural land) available for cultivation through government incentives, modern technology and financial assistance to the farming community or by diversifying the agri-potential with new emerging techniques such as aquaponics, hydroponics, vertical farming, monoculture, tissue culture, drones and genetically modified (GM) crops, are just a few examples.

These practices come at a high price tag or at a high health risk due to chemical formulation injections for rapid mass production.

Agriculture in arid/semi-arid lands and deserts is the realization of Nostradamus’ postulation that can be achieved through hydroponics. Hydroponics is a soil-less type of farming because it requires no soil for the plants to grow. Instead, it uses water as a growing medium.

It essentially involves growing healthy plants by using nutrients like a mineral rich water solution with its roots in water than conventional soil. Advantages of hydroponics are:

(a) By providing constant nutrients, hydroponics allows plants to grow 50% faster than they would in soil.

(b) It is ecologically and environmentally friendly as hydroponic gardening virtually eliminates the need for herbicides and pesticides.

(c) Any water used in hydroponic farm gardening stays within the system and can be reused, reducing the constant need for fresh water supply.

(d) Hydroponics is not limited by special dimensions or location and can scale to any size in an area with ample sunlight or artificial ambient environment. Geographical platforms or mediums such as deserts, cities, underground and even on water work.

(e) The technique is not labour-intensive or time-consuming and can work in conjunction with photovoltaic solar energy solutions for water pumping the hydroponic system.

Hydroponic farms across the globe

Examples of hydroponics and its variants can be found across the globe. Global Farm, the UAE, hydroponic farm produced more than 70 tons of vegetables and fruits in the September-June season, including cucumber, different types of leafy vegetables, eggplant and tomato.

Saudi Arabia has taken several major steps to build a more sustainable system in its challenging desert region. One such move is the rethinking of many traditional farming practices, especially focused on reducing water usage.

A farm in Jeddah uses neither water nor soil, rooting plants in mid-air while providing their nutrients through a mist. If a desert farm chooses to go hydroponic, there are ways to grow without draining freshwater supplies.

In arid South Australia, SunDrops Farms grows 15% of the country’s tomato crop through a solar-powered hydroponic system. To eliminate the use of precious freshwater, SunDrops sources its water from the nearby saltwater gulf, desalinated through the reflected heat of the sun.

In Japan, 160 farms are producing high-yield, high-profit crops, including tomato, cucumber, melon, strawberry, capsicum, lettuce and herbs, through soil-less technology.

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What Pakistan should do

Pakistan needs to immediately design a long-term conservationist road map, aggressively inject investment, tailour government policies, institutionalise governance and regulate agri-economics to accommodate emerging technologies in the agriculture sector for ensuring food security. At this explosive rate of population growth, every infinitesimal portion of land plantation is required with the minimalistic need of water and energy.

The dynamics of agriculture development in an arid/semi-arid environment, such as that of Sindh and Baluchistan especially, are bound by climatic challenges, water availability, quality of natural resources and scientific limitations. Therefore, it is an absolute must that new and improved advancements in technologies such as hydroponics be introduced in these areas as a first for food sustainability, sustenance and security.

The writer is a PhD in Engineering from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom and is an expert in emerging technologies

Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2019.