Change is scary. Change invites the unknown and causes trouble for what came before. Why change what has worked in the past? The answer, as given by every creator of every innovative technology, is that we change what works to make it work better. This philosophy is important to keep in mind when considering the world changing applications of hydroponic agriculture.
Hydroponics is an agricultural technique where crops are grown in mineral and nutrient rich water solutions as opposed to soil. In traditional agriculture, crops absorb necessary nutrients from the earth and water through irrigation. Through hydroponic methods, however, the water and nutrients are provided together in isolated and controlled environments.
NASA researcher maintaining hydroponically grown crops.
This method of agriculture provides innumerable advantages over traditional, in-soil methods and according to a variety of sources, the hydroponics industry is growing rapidly all over the world. However, there is a spreading fear about hydroponically grown foods, that they are inferior to soil grown crops.
Namely, adherents to soil-only agriculture claim that hydroponically grown foods contain less nutrients and taste worse. Their argument relies on the brix of various fruits and vegetables, brix being the measurement of sugars in an aqueous solution, in this case, the juice of the crop. In a recent article by the Healthy Home Economist, there is a claim made that hydroponically grown foods contains lower brix, making them less healthy and taste worse.
While taste is subjective, this argument is flawed for a number of reasons. No sources or citation is provided for the brix measurements, but if there were, they would be an outlier not indicative of hydroponically grown food as a whole. Unlike a soil grown crop, the brix of a fruit or vegetable in a hydroponic environment can be carefully and precisely adjusted by the grower. According to MaximumYield.com, brix can be increased or decreased by changing the potassium-to-nitrate ratio in the water solution or by adding fulvic acids, humic acids, or amino acid blends. This kind of chemistry is the cornerstone of hydroponics, finding and using the perfect mixture of nutrients to maximize the yield of crops while using the least amount of resources possible.
Hydroponically grown tomatoes
Photo credit: Giancarlo Dessì. Licensed under the Creative Commons
Secondly, brix is not commonly used as a measurement for the quality of fruits or vegetables, only their sugar content. For instance, a small, withered strawberry might have a very high brix, because there is very little water to mix with sugar, resulting in a high concentration. On the flip side, a plump, juicy watermelon might have a very low brix, due to the high presence of water. This does not mean the watermelon is unhealthy, only that it’s very well hydrated.
Hydroponics is a big change for agriculture, an industry founded on planting and harvesting crops from the earth. Although change can be scary, this particular change has the potential to heal our world. Changing food production from soil-based to hydroponic based can be the most significant change since the change from hunting and gathering to harvesting crops, and that change is already in motion. With world populations growing at an exponential rate, hydroponic agriculture could be the answer to feeding every person on Earth in an organic, and environmentally responsible way. The fear that hydroponics attempts to improve on nature is unfounded. In fact, hydroponics attempts to emulate nature in its most perfect form.
Image credit: Emily Rogers, PowerHouseHydroponics.com
MIT: Mission 2015 - http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2015/2015/hydro_agriculture.html
Hydroponics Overview - University of Arizona - http://ag.arizona.edu/ceac/sites/ag.arizona.edu.ceac/files/Merle%20overview.pdf
The Healthy Home Economist - http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/organic-hydroponic-produce-not-for-me/