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.


the Curse of the Craftsman

portrait of 2009 Prince's Foundation New Orleans craft apprentices on steps of historic house

   I spent a fascinating week recently in New Orleans working with The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment (PFBE) which is spearheading a craft apprentice training program in cooperation with the Preservation Resource CenterDelgado Community CollegeOperation Comeback, the Louisiana Carpenters Union, their Regional Council Apprenticeship and Training Center, and other partners. Participants in the program (pictured above) were hand-selected from New Orleans’ carpenters, millworkers, metalworkers, plasterers, and masons. Ben Bolgar of the Prince’s Foundation asked me to make a few comments on Saturday before I left. The following, as best as I can recall, summarizes what I left them with:

   “These have been very noteworthy days for me, as are all the days I’ve ever spent working with the Prince’s Foundation. It’s obvious in what you’ve said while presenting your work just now that you’re all very excited about what you’re been doing this week. That’s wonderful. And you sound as if you’re inspired to become craftsmen rather than just workers. Excellent carpenters and fine millworkers instead of wood-butchers. Great masons, not brick-throwers. Outstanding metalworkers as opposed to metal-bangers. And superb plasterers instead of mud-sloppers. I’ve told you about the craftsmen around Seaside, Florida, who are now regional celebrities, for whom people will come from 500 miles to try to get them to do their work. But I’d be doing a disservice if I left without telling you about the dark underbelly of craftsmanship: the Craftsman’s Curse.

   But before I do, let me tell you about one lunch hour that changed my life. I was in architecture school at the time, and we had a program called “Lunchline” where students would brown-bag lunch and gather around one of the original speaker phones (a big wooden contraption with protruding electronics) and have a conversation with a prominent architect. I was in my last year of school at the time, and the architect that day was Michael Graves. Late in the conversation, a freshman asked a typical freshman question: “Mr. Graves, what’s the secret of success in architecture?” I was afraid Graves would blow him off or make a fool of him, but, always the gentleman, he did not. Instead, he took him seriously, and responded in four words that changed my life: “Extraordinary singleness of purpose.” Had he said “great natural talent,” “wealthy parents,” “political connections,” or even “good looks,” I’d have been out of luck, because I had none of those. But “extraordinary singleness of purpose”... I could decide to have that!!! Every American has that choice! And today, you have that choice. Excellence is something anyone can choose to do. But let me tell you what it’s going to cost you:

   It’s Saturday afternoon. What happens if you decide today to dedicate yourself to becoming a craftsman? What changes on Monday morning? Here’s what:

   In the eyes of your customers, nothing changes. Everybody says they believe in high quality and good customer service. Ever hear anybody say “we build sloppy crap really cheap?” I didn’t think so. So what is your commitment to quality worth to your customers? Nothing at all. You’re no different from the brick-throwers, wood-butchers, metal-bangers, and mud-sloppers in their eyes.

   But what changes for you? Because you’re committed to an extraordinary quality of work, everything changes. It’s going to take you longer to do the same amount of work, especially at the beginning, when you’re just beginning to learn. And so you’ll be making less money per hour than the brick-throwers, the wood-butchers, the metal-bangers, and the mud-sloppers. And this will continue for years. And it will seem like nobody cares... because you’re still an unknown.

   Every single day, everything about your life and everyone dear to you will be pulling on you, screaming at you to give up your crazy commitment to excellence. How can you be so committed to this when it consumes you so and makes you less money than those who don’t care? You owe it to your family and your friends, they’ll say, to give up this craziness and just make a normal living.

   But do you know what the real tragedy is? It’s those who are committed for a few years, and then give up. Because do you know what happens then? When you give up before the Tipping Point, then it’s like pumping one of those old hand-operated water pumps: if you quit before the water gets flowing, it all drains back to the bottom, and you’re no better off than those who don’t care. Matter of fact, you’re worse off, because the years you’ve spent pursuing excellence are now all for nothing. This, then, is the Craftsman’s Curse: you work, usually for years, in passionate pursuit of excellence, with no obvious benefits in sight. And if you let it go, then you’re worse off than those who never cared to begin with.

   But what about the Tipping Point? Have you ever tried to tip a 55-gallon drum full of water? It’s tremendous work to even get it off the ground... it takes everything you’ve got. But then, after a lot of straining and groaning, it suddenly gets easier and easier... just before the moment that it tips and goes everywhere. That’s the point where you become a regional celebrity, and an overnight success... many years in the making.

   And guess what happens then? The wood-butchers are still butchering wood. That’s the best they’ll ever be. The brick-throwers are still throwing bricks. That’s the best they’ll ever be. The metal-bangers are still banging metal. That’s the best they’ll ever be. And the mud-sloppers are still slopping mud. That’s the best they’ll ever be. But you’re different. You’re way different. People are now seeking you out from miles around, because they now know what you’ve known for years: you can build things that few other mortals can build. Your name spreads broadly... wider than you ever dreamed possible. And for every remaining day of your life, you’ll be way different, and people will respect you because of it like they’d never respect you had you not cared for all those invisible years.

   It’s obvious you guys have heart. A lot of heart. And you can’t do this without having a lot of heart. Extraordinary singleness of purpose requires a lot of heart... because otherwise, you’ll get beaten down and give up, somewhere in the middle, before you get to the Tipping Point. We could all fail to get there. But none of us have to fail to get there. It could happen to all of us, but it doesn’t have to happen to any of us. Every single one of us can choose to get to the Tipping Point someday.”

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 - 04:21 PM



That is probably the best subject you could have decided on and

you said it very well. The tortoise and the hare, perserverance is

more important than anything else.

M L " Mike " Waller

Design/Builder, Debtor, --------- :-)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 - 05:01 PM

Chad Cooper

Reading this speech got me excited... and I wasn't even there... and, you weren't addressing people with whom I same the same skill-set.  But, it certainly applies to me and anyone else who's decided to not just focus on money, company title, or the other things that commonly suggest success.  Several years back, I started this process... the one you describe above... and this past year has been tough at times.  I've had times where I've thought how nice it would be to work for a company doing whatever they asked of me, regardless of what I've learned to be most proper.  But, I've reminded myself of this "tipping point" you've mentioned... and, I really believe that once you've taken a steps, the farther you proceed the harder it gets to even consider veering off course, regardless of whatever pressures being faced.  I agree, it's a "curse"... because there are times when it SEEMS like it could be easier to just not care so much, to just make a living, to not sweat the details so much.  So, that's the curse... once you start the exploration, it's impossible to go back... even if you wish you could sometimes.  

Anyway... great post Steve.  Sorry for the blabbering... the point is, although this was spoken to an audience of builders/craftsmen, I felt like it was written to me.



Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - 07:30 AM

cooter ramsey


As always, this is excellent! Thanks for the inspiration and reminder..


Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - 02:44 PM

Stubborn Sandy Sorlien

Terrific, Steve. And a wonderful picture of the group.

Thursday, November 12, 2009 - 11:54 PM

John Anderson

More important than extraordinary singleness of purpose is the ability to be happy in your work in spite of the static and distraction.  A craftsman actually owns the thing that makes them happy.

Sunday, November 15, 2009 - 12:13 AM

Ricky Newcomer

Thank you for posting this, Steve...and your

commitment to excellence is consistently

obvious and inspiring as well.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 - 09:08 PM

Robert Sharp


I've forwarded the link for this speech to everyone I know that does work that I respect; most of them in fields other than design or construction.  I appreciate your willingness to express the level of commitment required to change and heal the world.

Monday, December 7, 2009 - 03:28 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks to everyone for the comments!

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