Aquaponics, Hydroponics and the Future of Food

Picture this – 1764, the serfs are toiling in the fields, malnourishment is widespread, disease is common, and most earn a meagre living surviving day to day on any produce they can coax from the ground with the help of the odd tool, sympathetic weather and if you’re lucky, an ox. The summer has been wet, and the harvest will not be enough to see all of your children through the winter. As you barter your wears in exchange for food, you hear a rumour. Gradually, word begins to spread that a futuristic machine has been created. The new machine can spin yarn faster than you can shake a stick at. 8 sticks in fact – a worker could use this new invention, called a Spinning Jenny, to run 8 spindles at the same time.

1769, and you have lost a couple of kids through either disease or famine. The new weaving technology has yet to have an impact on you. The talk of the town lately is still on textiles – they have managed to hook up a water wheel to the spinning machines, thereby taking away the need for a person to do the work! Later that same year, James Watt came along and developed an earlier idea, where they could take water, heat it up, and use the resulting steam to make a train move. Wonders never cease!

1849 and – my oh my, where have you been? – Frankly, you have missed quite a lot. You should pay more attention. The steam engine has really taken off, and gone through numerous iterations. Iron metal has become a thing, so they decided to put the two inventions together and make locomotives travel on rails. In fact – that must have been one hell of a sleep you had – they have built 6,031 miles of track in Great Britain and set a new speed record of…I can scarcely believe my eyes – 29mph!

They also managed to mechanise the textile industry, mine 10million tons of coal in a single year, invent the industrial lathe, the electric battery, the telegraph, the sewing machine, and built 4000 miles worth of canals.

So much industry, and with it unprecedented sustained growth, a raise in the standard of living, sanitation, law, and a general improvement in, well, everything.

All in all, quite an exciting time really. The developments are now assigned to a relatively constrained era of recent human activity which you may have heard of – the Industrial Revolution. The upshot of all this industry is that lots of people moved away from rural settings and their thankless jobs in agriculture, and chased the growing number of jobs in factories, leading to the development of cities. The population of Manchester passed 100,000 as a result.

Farmland began to give way to houses, so that the cities could expand to fit all the people in. More factories were built to make the most of the latest technologies, and by the early 1900’s we had entire new industries – mining, ceramics, roadbuilding, shipbuilding, automobiles, paper factories, glass making, birth of the chemical industry, rediscovery of cement, and various types of metalworks. That’s a whole lot of industry I’m sure you will agree. All of which came together to make Great Britain the centre of the known universe, at least for the developed world outside of Asia.

All of these needed fuel, from gas lamps, to coal stores, to powering the internal combustion engine with gasoline.

With the economic growth going on all around, times were good, and people had money to buy things like food. More people were eating more than ever before, and less people were dying. So more food had to be found through agriculture, all while agricultural land packages were shrinking to allow for town growth. This increased even more after the Second World War when terraced houses begin to be built, and again in the 1960’s. But more mouths were there to be fed – what were farmers to do to create more food from smaller land than their forefathers?

Ah yes – there was a new technology to make the farm provide more food than ever before, food for the crops. And it was called fertiliser. Fertiliser was a modern marvel, which when applied to fields boosted crop yields from the same sized parcel of land as before.

 

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Fast forward to the early 21st century, and we know the problems. Fertiliser has caused increased eutrophication of our waterways, increasing nitrogen content and reducing oxygen available for aquatic life. Reducing oxygen levels reduces biodiversity of an aquatic system, and more developed life forms generally struggle (salmon) in comparison to their hardier, lower-level contemporaries (mosquitoes, bloodworm). The need to grow more crops has damaged the sustainability of the underlying farming soil resulting in increasingly poorer yields in the future. The only way to combat this is to use more land, or increase fertiliser use and it turns into a vicious cycle of earth systems degradation.

It is becoming harder for farmers to succeed, as supermarkets request near perfect specimens for their customers, and small family run businesses compete with giant farming corporations. They generally lose out due to economies of scale. The unit price of production wins every time.

What is the answer? A return to historic ways. We must create on a small scale. We must trade, borrow and barter.

 The future? Personalised farms, known as hydroponics. This is where people grow their own food, in a water based system without using soil, with the system covering a small area, an area just large enough to support themselves and their families. Impossible? Far from it. All you need is to recycle water through a closed system, add in a little sunlight, and voila, you are a modern day farmer.

Advantages of this system is that the production is increased compared to plants grown in soil, as nutrients can be more accessible in water than through soil, and therefore your crop will mature faster than traditional farming methods.

The next step up from this is to include a pond, throw in some fish, and allow the natural waste products to fertilise the crops.

 It’s so simple, you wonder why we haven’t done it before.

The problem most people envisage is the amount of space that farming takes up. Just picture a farm, and often, the area stretches as far as the eye can see. But what if flipped the horizontal onto the vertical? Some of you may have heard of vertical farms, or living walls. A living wall is essentially an indoor wall with plant life. It doesn’t have to be big. But there is a lot more space horizontally than vertically. What’s more, is that the pollution given out daily by manmade products within your house will be absorbed by plant life, so you are doing the world a favour in combatting global warming. You are also doing your wallet a favour by needing less trips to the shop. Which means less journeys in your car. Which reduces fuel use for increased carbon plus points, and frees up more time for you. Everyone wins! It’s so simple!

I will discuss different personal systems and homebound farming in a future post. For now, be content that there are options out there…do some research and become self-sufficient!