Hydroponics redefining future production of food

Changes from centralized to invidualized distribution

Food is an interest of mine. Big surprise for a college age male, right? But it’s not just the consumption of food that I’m interested in, it’s the production: how it’s grown, harvested, and shipped. In high school I discovered a passion for hydroponics—the growth of plants without the use of soil. The roots often are left to dangle in reservoirs of nutrient-rich water, with inflated clay pellets used to support some of the roots and hold in moisture. I was fascinated by the ability to grow plants in such a controlled environment; in that, I saw a future.

To switch tracks for a couple of paragraphs, I want to discuss economist Jeremy Rifkin’s lecture on solar energy and global climate change from 2013. Skipping past the doom-and-gloom that the environmental talk brings up, Rifkin spoke about his vision for the power grid and how it should adapt. He compared it to media and how we consume it. In the past two decades, we have seen a monumental shift: prior to the internet, media came to us in a “top-down” form—TV stations, radio stations, and movie studios all producing content and distributing it to the masses. Today, especially for the younger generation, so much of our media consumption comes from a wide variety of sources. The internet has created a platform where the “average” citizen can produce something and have it seen by millions. Sure, there are still big players who produce a large amount of content, but now more than ever we see the work of the individual.

Rifkin took this “bottom-up” model and applied it to the energy grid. Currently, we derive our power from a few large producers: coal, gas, hydro, nuclear; singular plants that provide for millions. Rifkin argued that to solve our ever-increasing energy needs, we should adopt a model similar to that of our media consumption—individual, distributed generation. He imagined every house on every street gathering solar energy and selling it to the grid for distribution. Instead of huge solar fields replacing coal, have rows of solar panels on houses replacing coal. It’s taking a small number and multiplying it by something huge.

I loved this thought process, so I took it on and applied it to my passion. In your refrigerator right now, where was that apple grown? It’s autumn, so it’s probably locally grown, right? But in three months from now, in the dead of winter, where are those fresh fruits and vegetables grown? Probably not anywhere within 1,000 miles of where they’re sold—that’s for certain. I will argue that this doesn’t need to be the case; I can grow fresh fruits and vegetables in any climate, any time of year, anywhere thanks to hydroponics.

In my mind, I imagine hydroponic farms in cities and towns across the United States. Each one would be climate controlled to match optimal growing conditions, along with strict nutrient control to match the growth stage. Instead of importing fresh produce from thousands of miles away, we could be producing our food ten miles away, every day of the year. I see the future of agriculture in hydroponic farming.

For anyone interested, Rifkin’s talk can be found at https://poly.rpi.edu/s/5cvqp. It’s just under an hour and well worth a listen.

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