Hydroponics - Miracle or Threat?

vegetable field in Cerro Punta, Panama with mountain in background

   Hydroponics, which is a set of practices of growing plants without soil (unlike the image above) are being trumpeted as an emerging technology that will save us all, allowing human population to grow far beyond the world’s carrying capacity. But is there a dark underbelly to hydroponics?

   I attended an excellent session at the recent Greenbuild in Phoenix on Urban Food Systems. Anyone familiar with the Original Green knows that sustainable places must first of all be Nourishable Places, because if you can’t eat there, you can’t live there, and as energy costs rise, we’ll be less able to ship food long distances. So, even it weren’t healthier and didn’t taste better, the need to re-learn how to raise our food nearby should still be a high priority for economic and food security reasons.

   Take a look at the world population chart in the Everything Bubble, and it’s pretty easy to see that there will soon come a time when the ways we’ve raised food in the past simply won’t feed everyone. We’ve got to eventually achieve population stability, but between now and then, what do we do?

   The Urban Food Systems session, moderated by Eden Brukman of the International Living Building Institute, put a number of provocative and highly useful ideas on the table. Critter Thompson of Mithun laid out a great presentation of the big-picture challenges we’re facing, and an overview of several solutions, and Andy Fisher of the Community Food Security Coalition presented a compelling case for Food Security. I was fine with everything until they got to Chris Jacobs’ segment, which described the Vertical Farm movement, which is based largely on hydroponics. Chris, of United Future is a really nice guy... probably the most charming guy in the room most of the time, but I couldn’t help but get the feeling that we’d heard this pitch before: Technology will save us all!

   One of the benefits of hydroponics is its ability to be practiced indoors, away from the weather, bathed in the endless glow of the electric grow-lights. Because of this, floor upon floor of hydroponic farmland can be stacked up into agricultural towers. All we need to do is pump in a lot of water laced with NPK fertilizer and... oh, wait, we found out a few years ago that there are a few other “minor nutrients” we need to add to the brew... and each plant will produce unbelievable quantities of vegetables totally impossible using natural gardening methods. Yep, technology will save us all!

   Or will it? Wasn’t electricity going to be “too cheap to meter” after we converted to nuclear power plants? Wasn’t baby formula supposed to be better for infants because the scientists had learned exactly what they needed? And wouldn’t it prevent the need for the hopelessly outmoded and vulgar practice of breast-feeding? How about all the other highly-processed “food-like substances” that have been replacing real food for years? Aren’t they technologically superior?

   Something funny happened along the way, however... we have begun to discover that life is a lot more complex than our reductivist thinking led us to believe. There’s far more to breast milk, for example, than just the stuff they put in baby formula. And there’s a lot more in the soil than just the NPK formulation of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The complex interactions of all of the nutrients, microbes, and creatures in and around the soil, from earthworms below to chickens above, are likely to nourish the plants in synergistic ways we can’t even imagine yet.

   Are the results bigger? No, hydroponics definitely are more efficient than raising food naturally. But are they better? That’s a far different question, and one that science can’t answer authoritatively yet. But what we have found is that reductivist thinking predictably does one thing very well: it misses most of the big picture, and has repeatedly gotten us into trouble that it usually takes years to discover.

   Hydroponic advocates would have us believe, for example, that the only two choices are to keep growing things normally and face massive world starvation in a few decades, or convert to industrial food tower factories. There’s actually another way:

   The current industrial food system may be very man-hour efficient (if you just count the tractor driver) but it’s quite inefficient per acre. Depending on the growing season and climatic conditions, American agribusiness needs 1-3 acres of land to provide all of the food from all of the food groups for one person for one year. Bio-intensive agriculture, on the other hand, is just the opposite. It requires more man-hours, but not that many more, if you count the industrial food chain’s truck drivers, fertilizer and poison factory workers, processing plant workers, and the massive number of corporate white-collar employees it takes to make it all run. 

   Bio-intensive agriculture has several trump cards. It’s been proven to leave water and soil cleaner and healthier, whereas agribusiness leaves it a muddy, toxin-laden mess. It conserves the soil, rather than allowing it to wash away. On top of all this, it’s highly acre-efficient. Michael Ableman is a highly respected farmer and author (in that order) who was a fellow consultant with me on DPZ’s Southlands project in the Vancouver vicinity last year. Even with Vancouver’s short growing season, Michael was confident that Southland’s farms could feed at least 20 people per acre. That’s at least 20 times as efficient as industrial farming! And because it doesn’t need the industrial poisoning systems like crop-dusting, nor does it have industrial-scale nuisances like 1,000 hogs in a CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation,) it acts as “good-neighbor agriculture,” able to snuggle right up to a town or city. Because of this, we were able to use 1/3 of the Southlands site for a new community, 1/3 of the site for parks, lakes, and playing fields, and 1/3 for agriculture, and the portion used for agriculture would feed the people it was feeding already plus the new inhabitants of the community. Silver bullets are normally a myth, but switching from industrial to bio-intensive agriculture literally allows us to have our cake and eat it, too!

   With this being the case, we don’t need to be forced into engineered hydroponic food... just switch to the common-sense middle ground of bio-intensive farming, which gives us substantially more time to figure out how to live sustainably on our planet.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009 - 12:27 PM


Hi Steve,

Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the conference, therefore unsure if the following points may have been raised.

Industrical farming relies very much on the need for convenience - bug free, able to be transported thousands of kilometers (ok miles). This resulted in the emergence of monocultures, which themselves become very susceptible to unexpected disruptive vectors that could be outside the strict normal growing, environmental conditions to this crop with narrow range of environmental criteria.  Heritage varieties allow for a greater genetic base and resilience to many unanticipated changes.  These are ideal for local economies.  Usually the taste leaves the industrial produce in the dust.

Secondly, agriculture so completely disregards how nature has restored natural balance and use huge amouints of energy getting rid of waste products of agriculture, rather then allow for nature to take its course.  Composting is seen as a huge inconvenience, whereas, if done locally, it could greatly reduce the need for the petrochemical industry to supply the required nutrients as fertilizer.  

Toronto has a compost collection program in place, Ottawa will soon; I truly hope that the end result actually solves more problens than it created.  (we have collection for garbage every week, paper products biweekly, alternating with metals, plastics and glass collection on the alternate weeks.. I am not sure if this is common practice in the states.

The driving cost is the need to decrease pressure on landfill sites to store all our garbage.  

I hope the above makes sense and adds to the discussion.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009 - 01:28 PM

Dan Cotter

Interesting argument. Thanks Steve.

Friday, December 4, 2009 - 02:28 PM

John Massengale


I still think you're setting up a straw man when you say, "Hydroponic advocates would have us believe, for example, that the only two choices are to keep growing things normally and face massive world starvation in a few decades, or convert to industrial food tower factories."

First, although I've only spent a little time around hydroponics, I've never heard anyone say that until now. Second, the claims they make are irrelevant next to the what they actually, which should speak for itself.

The time I spent at Cabbage Hill farm, where they combine other interesting experiments I've described to you, was fascinating. And we are going to have a major problem feeding the 6 billion people in the world if we try to wean ourselves off petrochemical-based agribusiness, as we should. I've never understood why you feel such a need to attack what others are trying here. I don't see this as black and white, as you seem to.

Monday, December 7, 2009 - 03:27 PM

Steve Mouzon

Excellent points, Tatiana... thanks so much! John, that's exactly what they hydroponics advocate was saying... and from what I could determine, he's actually a PR guy that seems to have been hired by the industry to promote it. So he's no straw man at all... he's as close as you'll get to an industry line, I suspect. As for the black & white issue, that's actually what he was inferring... "switch to hydroponics or we'll all starve." I'm trying to make the point that it's not all black & white... there's a third way in the middle: biodynamic agriculture, which doesn't give up the complexities plants growing in soil just because we don't understand the benefits of all those complexities yet.

Sunday, December 20, 2009 - 05:48 PM

John Massengale


Since I was the one who introduced Janna to biodynamic farming, obviously I'm for it (I've been eating biodynamic food since 1972). But I really don't care what an apparently not-very-bright person trying to sell hydroponics says, particularly when there's no actual quote in context. People selling New Urbanism have said plenty of stupid things, and people say dumb things in support of Classicism every week on the TradArch list. That doesn't stop you and me from supporting them.

More importantly, although people I trust tell me hydroponic food at this stage is NOT as good nutritionally as good organic food (let alone bio-dynamic), the aquaponic experiment I visited is very interesting and has a lot of potential - and already it's light years ahead of the agribusiness food that most of the world eats, so I'm not going to let theory convince me at this point that we should declare it terrible and worse. Like Andres and Jane Jacobs and you, I think we should take whatever works. For the average web visitor (who unlike me may not know you), I would think the reverse could come across as dogmatically Luddite. Sorry, but that's the way I think it reads.



© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018