I had reason to comment in The Independent yesterday on the article I blogged about on the Royal Society’s undertaking of a serious new global population study to be reported on in 2012.
One or more of the commenters mentioned the need for more sensible and extended land usage as populations increase and more food production is required. It prompted me to write briefly about a small farm I had on the North East Coast of Australia.
It isn’t actually the best place for a hydroponics farm that is uncovered. The aerial photo shows the layout of the tables but not much else. The tables themselves cover approximately 2 acres so it is not a big area to manage at all.
I grew some in-ground crops as well. Good old rocket does better in soil than in the tables. The farm was 10 acres all up and could have been developed more than I did.
The sub-tropical climate is often unstable and the lettuce and herbs suffered from blistering heat in the summer. It wasn’t in the hail belt but received its fair share of water and wind damage.
So the best time to grow crops is through the autumn, winter and spring.
The good thing about hydroponic growing is that there is minimal land degradation. The nutrient delivery and return pipes are laid just under the surface of the ground. That makes for easy access for repairs etc.
The other good thing is that a lot of produce can be grown in a concentrated area. Because nutrient is delivered straight to the roots of the plants the turn-around time from seeding to harvest is between 6 and 9 weeks depending on the season.
The seeding area is covered to protect the trays from damage and to concentrate nutrient in the first weeks before planting into the tables.
On full production, the tables shown in the aerial view can produce about 600 kilos (edit – I have reduced the output to a more realistic figure) of lettuce, asian vegetables and selected herbs every week. Not bad for a small area. You can see that if small scale hydroponics were used in small local areas, then the market in that area could easily be satisfied. All the produce grown on my farm went to the local Byron Shire area. There were about 5 hydroponic growers in the Shire at the time I had the farm.
The Netherlands and parts of Asia have taken hydroponics and aquaponics to another level. Hundreds of hectares are devoted to hydroponic and greenhouse food production with massive infrastructure. All the tables are covered in the Netherlands.
Practically all EU packaged mesclun, gourmet and other mixed greens product come from the Netherlands to my knowledge. Sweden is producing as well.
Nor is the style of hydroponic growing that is detailed in these photos of mine the only methodology. So it isn’t just greens that can be produced in intensive ways.
It seems to me that as more food needs to be produced, our eating habits will undergo change that reflects what we can grow with minimal land use.
The large agricultural conglomerates will always be with us and their economies of scale actually reduce the cost of food while increasing its nutrition. Agricultural science also has a lot to offer in increasing the nutritional value of basic food stuffs grown and eaten in the poorer parts of the world.
I heard a passionate talk given by Michael Specter on TED called The Danger of Science Denial. He talked, inter alia, about the ability of science to introduce genetic material into nutrient-poor basic food stuffs to increase the nutrient value of these food stuffs.
He mentions that the woo woo crowd calls genetically engineered food Frankenfood. It is dangerous to label things in scare-mongering terms while knowing nothing about the subject.
I know as well as the next person that humans have been playing around with seeds to increase yield and nutrient value for the past few thousand years. Corn, otherwise known as maize, is a big one. It is used in many ways today and is present in heaps of different processed foods. It feeds masses of people. It wasn’t always like that.
It used to be, in Mesoamerica thousands of years ago, a small wispy grass with a tiny ear of seeds called teosinte. It bears no relation to anything like the corn we know today. But the Mesoamericans engineered or created maize from teosinte and it is the closest relative to maize that we know today.
Food production will have to be addressed as the global population increases and land becomes ever more used for housing and other infrastructure. And land degradation from constant monoculture means that dust storms increase and artificial help is required for continued growing. I am not at all convinced that this is sustainable.