The Ponics Evolution

Posted: 2 July 2021
Author: Jake Mortimer

Growing up on a large-scale hydroponic rose farm in rural Kenya, my passion for agricultural technology and engineering was fostered from a young age.

Africa exposes the very harsh realities many people face in terms of famine due to poor soil, drought and adverse weather phenomena such as ‘El Niño’. Having witnessed many people suffering under intolerable conditions, I embarked on finding a solution, this led me to the conclusion that the development of hydroponics and/or aquaponics systems would be a more viable and environmentally friendly option than traditional farming techniques. With good water, land and food being scarce in many parts of Kenya and indeed many parts of the world, I knew there must be a better way to provide sustainable food to a growing population.

For the last 5 years, I have gradually compiled data, knowledge and experience in aquaponics and hydroponics, and while working in Kenya before University I was able to learn much about permaculture and sustainable, bio-dynamic eco-systems. In the summer of my second year at University, I built an aquaponics system in Kenya which taught me a lot about these types of systems and gave me firsthand practical experience with the complexities of this type of farming.

I have now built an indoor system in England, which allows me to further expand my knowledge in an urban environment. The Douglas Bomford Trust awarded me a £2,000 scholarship for the further development of my aquaponics system.

Why have I and many others taken such an interest in this way of farming?

The problem being that by 2050 the population on earth is expected to grow to circa 10 billion people. Today, in 2021 there are an estimated 690 million people still going hungry, a number that is likely to go up. With demands for fresh water and farmland ever increasing, how can we solve the world hunger crisis?

I believe we are on the cusp of answering that question, with agriculture experiencing the biggest change since the second industrial revolution when farm machinery accelerated our productive output. Agriculture is now experiencing a time of great conversion and joining the computerised world, with it, new technologies are emerging which will allow us to redefine how land is used and how food is grown.

In the past the biggest limiting factor to population growth was the amount of food we could produce, time and time again we saw populations reach their peak and have a physical inability to continue to grow. Then these populations would subsequently fall as some major culling event happened, be it war or disease. For the last 60 years, however, there has not been a substantial event that has wiped out a large portion of the global population and with increases in modern medical techniques our population continues to grow. We have long surpassed the point where agriculture can keep up with the demand. It is time for change.

So what’s the solution?

Hydroponics is a way of growing plants without the use of soil, utilising growing mediums to achieve the same, if not better, results than traditional farming. In hydroponics the oxygen-rich nutrient solution is fed to the plants via this growing medium, usually in the form of aggregates. While it can be electricity and capital intensive, it achieves a much higher yield than other systems. When used in a controlled environment like a greenhouse, it can produce all year round without the possibility of failure due to adverse weather. However, hydroponics can be quite water-intensive, especially if the system is not re-circulating.

To give you a better understanding of the need for these systems, we have spoken to Nick Green, Business Development Director at Shockingly Fresh.

Nick Green – Shockingly Fresh

“Sourcing produce has never been challenge-free. I speak from over 20 years’ experience doing just that. However, in recent years those challenges have been mounting. Growers are under increasing pressure to produce a crop of increasing quality but in a more difficult environment. They are required to produce a crop approaching ready-to-eat status despite it coming from a farm. Soil-borne disease makes growing certain crops a real challenge. In parallel to this, if the crop comes from the EU, the person sourcing it has to contend with the challenges of Brexit, which will add cost to the supply chain either in increased lead times or in increased complexity.

Vertical farming, meanwhile, has been viewed until quite recently as being quite niche, or even “quirky”, and certainly involving a huge amount of capital to build something only capable of growing high-end product for high-end prices but not disrupting the market. This is changing. Companies such as Saturn Bioponics, with whom we work, are now educating the sector that super-complex growing is not necessarily the answer. We selected their technology from over 75 others that we reviewed as it offered the most pragmatic solution that balanced cost and return.

We then use our vast experience in project management to bring this technology together with growers and retailers, as well as landowners and investors to create vertical farms that offer mainstream crops at mainstream prices.

Our first farm in the Vale of Evesham goes live this summer. Watch this space!”

Further to this, aquaponics is the next step after hydroponics. It takes the same idea of growing plants without soil and with nutrient-rich water and merges it with aquaculture. This system creates a complete closed-loop system, which is 90% more efficient with water than traditional farming techniques. The aquatic animals supply fertiliser and nutrients for the plants by way of their effluent. The plants then take up this nitrogen thereby cleaning the water for the aquatic animals. This creates an environment that some argue is even better than organic farming because of the no chemical policy that is intrinsic with these systems.

At Hurren & Hope Planet, we are working with forward-thinking candidates, with strong education, including PhD’s, and experience developing new techniques of farming right through to the ever-progressive Agritech businesses, keen to progress with more sustainable crop production. I look forward to continuing this research and expanding my knowledge on the subject both in my practical farming and supporting the wider industry to make a difference.

We’d love to hear what you think about hydroponics, aquaponics and agritech in general, so please join the discussion by following us on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

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