Terres et eaux

Home Gardens/Vertical Farming, Hydroponics and Aquaponics

To ensure global food security to meet the demands under uncertainty as COVID-19 pandemic and increasing population, food production must rise by 60 percent by 2050. On the other hand, natural prerequisites of agriculture, namely arable land and water, have been depleting with rapid urbanization across the globe. To feed the increasing population, not only does the productivity of food crops need to be increased in the existing arable land, but alternative farming techniques need to also be encouraged.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has an impact beyond a health crisis: it is affecting societies and economies at their core. While the impact of the pandemic will vary from country to country, it will most likely increase poverty and inequalities on a global scale, making the achievement of SDGs even more urgent. Without steep and adequate socio-economic responses, global suffering will escalate, jeopardizing lives and livelihoods for years to come.

Considering the force and isolation of COVID 19, strengthening food production and distribution systems is key to fighting hunger and tackle the double burden of malnutrition. The development of aqua- and hydroponics embrace all dimensions of food security. The integrated WEF framework for the planning of aqua- and hydroponics should improve access of urban poor to healthy foods. Additionally, domestic production of food, access to markets and the acquisition of skills are invaluable tools for securing the empowerment and emancipation of women in developing countries, and aqua- and hydroponics can provide the foundation for fair and sustainable socio-economic growth. Contrary to allotment gardens in peri-urban and urban areas, hydroponic systems do not require much space and can be realized in small areas in and around the homestead. Moreover, installations can be realized by individuals as stand-alone systems that will avoid the complicated organization of collective actions.

While these alternative techniques can be utilized by a variety of stakeholders, from household farmers and small- to large-scale farmers, specific knowledge and skills must be developed for safe, successful and sustainable implementation. Important considerations include, but are not limited to, water quality parameters and testing, water sourcing for aquaponics, plant or plant/fish selection, site selection and system design, feeding rates and biosecurity (such as sanitation and hygiene) for preventing waterborne diseases. In the Urban Water-Food Nexus, shortening the food supply chain for the urban residents and demand for locally produced food also makes hydroponic systems an attractive and resilient option under COVID-19. Besides food security for the urban population, an estimated 50 percent increase in urban water demands is expected rapid over the next 30 years.  The hydroponic and vertical farming technologies with closed water loop system have the advantage for enormous water and land use savings. FAO provides knowledge resources, guidance and training to support the adoption of these water-saving, resource-efficient alternative farming techniques.

Closing the loop in vertical farming – future is here in urban hydroponic farming (Left: Aerofarm in Newark, NJ. Right: Soil-less agriculture)

Hydroponics

Hydroponics, by definition, is a method of growing plants in a water-based, nutrient-rich solution. Hydroponics does not use soil, instead, the root system is supported using an inert medium such as perlite, rockwool, clay pellets, peat moss, or vermiculite. The basic premise behind hydroponics is to allow the plant’s roots to come in direct contact with the nutrient solution, while also having access to oxygen, which is essential for proper growth. Moreover, it is a potentially useful tool to overcome some of the challenges of traditional agriculture in the face of freshwater shortages, climate change and soil degradation (FAO, 2018). Hydroponics is an option for farmers with limited access to land and water and works well in places where the soil is poor and water is scarce, for example in urban areas, arid climates and low-lying islands (FAO, 2018).

Major advantages with such a system include: 

  • the absence of weeds and other soil-borne pests
  • no toxic pesticide residue
  • better use of water
  • better control over nutrient and oxygen
  • increased crop quality and yields. 

Lower and more efficient resource consumption allows this alternative farming technique to be adopted by a variety of stakeholders, ranging from home gardeners to professional growers, and supermarkets to restaurants. Additionally, the increased control over environmental growing conditions allows for year-round production.

Aquaponics

Aquaponics is a system that combines hydroponics, soil-less agriculture, and aquaculture within a closed system. There are three biological components in the aquaponics process: fish, plants, and bacteria. With aquaponics, the farmer combines the recirculating aquaculture with hydroponic vegetables – the fish water is used as fertilizer for the plants, and the plants clean the water for the fish. The result is value-added, local production of both fish and vegetables together, using the same water (FAO, 2014). 

Major benefits of aquaponics food production: 

  • Two agricultural products (fish and vegetables) are produced from one nitrogen source (fish food);
  • Extremely water efficient;
  • Does not require soil;
  • Does not use fertilizers or chemical pesticides;
  • Prevents aquaculture waste from polluting nearby watersheds
  • Higher control on production leading to lower losses. 
  • Can be used on non-arable lands such as deserts, degraded soil or salty, sandy islands

While the creation of an aquaponics system may require a large initial investment (also depending on the size of the unit), once it has been built it only incurs low recurring costs— especially when taking into account the combined returns coming from both the fish and vegetable production. In addition, aquaponics can offer quality-of-life improvements because the food is produced locally using comparatively simple harvest methods and culturally appropriate crops can be grown (FAO, 2016).

Case Studies

Improving agricultural production in the Gaza Strip 

The agriculture sector in the Gaza Strip faces several systemic issues; most prominent is the depletion of its only source of freshwater: the coastal aquifer. The aquifer is also extremely polluted, and high groundwater salinity leads to poor plant performance for some of the most produced vegetables in the Gaza Strip. One method of production that could contribute to this goal was hydroponics. FAO implemented a project aimed to identify, assess and disseminate applicable, low-tech, hydroponic vegetable farming methods for sustainable agricultural production in the Gaza Strip, and promote its adoption.

Two beneficiaries received inputs and technical training to establish and manage small-scale, commercial, low-tech hydroponic farms. Despite the unique challenges faced in establishing hydroponics in the Gaza Strip, such as fluctuating groundwater quality and restricted fertilizer availability, annual income results showed that the pilot hydroponic farms were nine times more profitable than conventional methods. In addition, the hydroponic systems used far less water and fertilizers. 


FAO launches “Hydroponics and Aquaponics” water-saving systems in Jordan 

Water scarcity in Jordan is driven primarily by its arid to semi-arid climate and by population increases experienced in recent decades; in particular, the status of Jordan’s groundwater is of critical concern. Jordan’s groundwater resources remain under threat from mismanagement and over-exploitation, linked specifically to the expansion of irrigated agriculture.

To alleviate pressures on Jordan’s already scarce water resources, FAO launched a pioneering project to provide capacity building and technical support for the Integrated Agri-Aquaculture (IAA) farming systems in Jordan. The project is designed to train unemployed agricultural engineer graduates and farmers, set up a knowledge base and research on “Hydroponics and Aquaponics” farming units. Furthermore, it aims to contribute to support employment of youth and women job seekers, through the creation of employment opportunities in aquaponics and hydroponics.

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