Karin Kloosterman, ecology journalist and founder of Flux and the eco-blog Green Prophet, says that global food insecurity could become a thing of the past.
For many years Kloosterman has been covering information focused on clean-tech solutions: water re-use, energy and water efficiency, greenhouse gas mitigation, gas and fuel alternatives – and naturally food and crop-raising solutions. After years of studying biology and solutions to environmental problems, she decided to be a part of those solutions, and launched Flux, an advanced system of growing food hydroponically.
“The big issue is that conventional farming is destroying our planet,” she explains. “It devastates our land. Israel’s farmers, for example, pay a big price in water. Currently it would make more sense to import bananas from Africa than to raise them here.
“Conventional farming is a process of constant patching-up. We apply pesticides to the plants. The bugs outsmart the pesticides and develop a tolerance to them. So we create stronger pesticides to spray on the plants. The pesticides eventually filtrate into the ground and obliterate eco-systems that live in the soil. The soil dies. To invigorate the plants, we add fertilizer to the soil. All that stuff goes into our groundwater, so we’re drinking and eating it.
“These substances build up in our bodies, and disrupt our hormones. As a result, breast and prostate cancer rates are soaring. It’s the reproductive organs that are most susceptible to damage. This is what keeps me up at night: conventional farming, the destruction of land, the rape of the planet. It sounds crude, but that’s what it is.”
The food system, she explains, is run by big industry, banks and chemical companies, not the farmers. But people can make a difference with hydroponics, a way of growing food on treated water.
“You can grow food hyper-efficiently with hydroponics. Soil has variations: the pH of the soil in one place can be 6.5, while a meter away, it will be different. Hydroponics creates an environment of harmonious conditions over the whole growing space.”
Food has even been grown in space. Astronauts have already eaten food hydroponically grown in spaceships. Because the water used is recycled within the system again and again, hydroponics is up to 90% more water efficient, depending on how the local climate affects evaporation.
Plants don’t thrive and produce in plain water. Hydroponics requires fewer nutrients than conventional farming, but nutrients must be added.
There are known brands of nutrients based on chemicals, but today a grower can also buy nutrients made from biological sources; that is, nutrients derived from composted food waste.
The pesticide problem is almost nonexistent in hydroponics. Crops grown in treated water need almost no pesticides because the pests that live in soil aren’t present, and since most hydroponic gardens are sheltered in greenhouses, airborne pests are eliminated, too.
“You can grow food indoors all year long, anywhere, with a hydroponic system – even in the Arctic Circle. This is a boon to remote communities where people can’t afford to fly fresh food in,” says Kloosterman.
“One example is the Syrian refugee camps in northern Jordan. The refugees aren’t permitted to build permanent structures, but there are people building hydroponic food gardens there. I’ve met people in the USA who adopted hydroponics to feed inner-city residents who never get fresh produce.
I heard stories of kids who were used to eating a chocolate bar for breakfast now eagerly eating hydroponically grown mustard greens.”
The world of hydroponics has been in place for decades and is very advanced.
There’s an overwhelming number of system options. Hydro-shops sell expensive brand-name nutrient solutions.
Using them requires following a complicated plan chart that changes weekly.
People often give up after a few unsuccessful experiments.
“Flux’s system, Eddy, is simpler and takes much of the work out of hydroponics. Flux also makes nutrient mixtures at a price that’s more reasonable for home growers. People can easily grow a quarter of their vegetable needs for $50 with an aquarium, some pumps, and a bucket.”
Technology makes it easy and even fun to monitor a hydroponic system. One doesn’t need to become a scientist.
“You drop Eddy, the wireless computer/robot, into your water source. It can be it a bucket or a small water tank. You download the app, set up an account and input the crops you’re raising and under which conditions.
Your data goes to the cloud (Internet-based information sharing between computers). The system chooses the correct protocol based on what you’re growing, the hydroponic system you’re using and your location. Each type of crop has its own requirements.
Tomatoes, for example, which must flower to produce fruit, need different nutrients than herbs and spices, which don’t need to flower but should produce plentiful leaves. You receive a profile and app-based garden with your information. Once you have the water chemistry and lighting right, you’re ready to grow successfully.”
The system is both diagnostic and an environment controller. When the computer bobbing in the water senses that something needs adjusting, such as plant food, pH balance, lighting or water temperature, the grower receives a pop-up alert on his or her mobile phone or tablet. It is possible for a system to adjust changes automatically, but for now, the grower makes the changes according to updates received.
A grower can, by experimenting, learn to control the flavor or texture of his crops. It’s possible to raise plants that exactly fit individual needs, for example vitamin-boosted foods for athletes or low-nitrogen vegetables for people with certain chronic ailments.
Kloosterman says that an American hospital is already growing vegetables that way.
“This isn’t genetic modification. It’s about what to feed the plants, and how often, to produce crops with specific nutritional content,” she says.
The Eddy app has another benefit: interaction with like-minded gardeners and farmers.
“Via the app, the grower can connect with others to share information and advice. It creates meaningful connections between people via their crops and food.
Every hydroponics user is a pioneer, and we want to connect all these pioneering hydro-farmers. We have a small army testing hydroponics on an empirical basis.
We want growers to enter a hive of global researchers to draw on each other’s wisdom.”
A grower can even earn money by sharing, as other growers pay to access each other’s data.
“Our mission is to encourage self-driven, autonomous farms in emerging economies. In Africa, people are desperate to grow food. Other countries, India and China specifically, are looking to Israel for food solutions.
Israelis understand the importance of self-sufficiency and growing food on little water. Our farmers are researchers. It’s incredible how many Israeli farmers have PhDs.
“Earth’s resources aren’t infinite and there are few options left. Climate change is evident in places like California, with the ongoing drought there. Desertification is already happening in places like Syria. Forests are disappearing. In China, the soil is so polluted with cadmium and heavy metals that people don’t want to eat food grown on it. We want to teach people to grow food without having to own land. You can grow almost anything hydroponically, even shrubs and trees.”
Kloosterman recognizes that grain and pulse crops such as wheat, corn and soy will continue to be raised on soil. However, she predicts that hydroponics will provide a solution to tender crops that are hard to transport. In addition, home gardeners are moving towards a victory-garden type of planting, where food is grown in the yard, rather than lawns or ornamental plants. “Sixty-five percent of young American families buying homes are planting food gardens,” she reports.
Local conditions vary and gardeners must plant accordingly.
“Trees, for instance, need a lot of support, not only because of weight but because of height. The Dead Sea area would be good for hydroponic tree growth, but in a place like Toronto, you’d have to build an impossibly high greenhouse,” she says. So local conditions still dictate, to some extent, what crops can be grown in a specific locale.
Metro asked how the common householder can start growing food hydroponically. Kloosterman replied that you can either acquire a hydroponic system from one of the hydroponic shops in Israel, or build your own.
“It’s not like a solar heater, which has to be nailed down to a roof and then connected to the electrical grid. My own rooftop system consists of an IKEA trash bucket, some new sewage pipes and an aquarium. It’s propped up on a metal stand, and that’s it. I set up a biodome over it, and I grow bok choy, radicchio and four kinds of lettuce. The biodome is a good idea for Israelis who don’t have balconies. You could get together with neighbors and set up a roof garden.”For more information about hydroponics or Eddy, contact [email protected]