Indoor soilless gardening (ISG) offers a myriad of benefits to the agricultural community, yet the process is energy consuming and comes with many limitations.
Anyone with a hydroponics system is familiar with the technique. As the name suggests, soilless gardening relies on non-soil material for growing plants. This primarily means water, but can also include materials like gravel, sand, vermiculite, crushed rock or cinders.
Related: Why regenerative agriculture will reverse climate change
Pros of indoor soilless gardening
Any form of food production is a good thing. After all, food is an essential component of human existence. However, the benefits of ISG go well beyond simply growing food.
Takes pressure off the land
Moving gardening indoors means less reliance on agricultural land. As we know, with up to half of all usable land being used for food production, maintaining our current methods is not sustainable.
The process of producing food contributes to soil erosion, pesticide pollution, carbon release and many other damaging consequences. Scientists are looking for ways to reduce the reliance on, and damage to, the environment. Soilless gardening is one way to go about it.
Because of the controlled indoor environment, soilless gardening requires few, if any, chemical enhancements. That means less water, air and soil pollution, which is healthier for all of us.
Traditional agriculture is guilty of excessive water consumption. The processes involved in sourcing, using and treating water used for food production is inefficient and wasteful. ISG uses a small percentage of the water required for traditional farming, not only conserving resources, but also keeping water sources cleaner and avoiding the energy consumption required to treat water polluted by standard methods.
Left to grow wild, nature provides a prolific abundance of biodiversity, with both plants and animals. Adding in human agriculture disrupts that system in every way, from driving out wildlife to mismanaging food supplies and disrupting food chains within the animal kingdom. Indoor soilless gardening is a viable alternative that can lessen that burden.
When soil is disrupted, carbon stored beneath the surface is released into the atmosphere. With soilless gardening, this doesn’t happen. If managed properly ISG can have a positive effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by farming.
With practical ISG solutions in place, food production can stabilize communities suffering from food insecurity without concern for weather events, drought and other common obstacles. Producing food at a local level, whether large or small scale, also means less transport emissions and increased self-sufficiency.
Cons of indoor soilless gardening
The primary disadvantage of ISG is the copious energy consumption required to run current standardized processes. Even with energy-efficient LED lighting, the system draws on the energy grid. Perhaps even more impactful is that the use of grow lights heats the space to uncomfortable levels, requiring the use of air conditioning for proper temperature control. Obviously, this results in a large energy footprint across the board.
Indoor soilless gardening is an efficient system for growing leafy greens. However, other crops don’t perform well in the ISG environment. This means there are limitations as to what can effectively grow better indoors than when using traditional agricultural methods.
Currently, due to the youth of the technique as a commercial option, the setup, energy and labor costs result in a high price point for goods produced. We’re just not yet able to make it highly cost effective. Until prices lower through adoption and increased availability, ISG is a questionable solution for food inequality.
A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund, “Indoor Soilless Farming Phase II: Moving from theory to action,” outlines some of the potential challenges and advantages for investing in ISG as one part of a solution to address global issues such as climate change and food insecurity.
The report offers a comprehensive look at the future of ISG through both scaling the process to a commercial level and expanding small-scale opportunities to schools and other institutions. This is the second phase of a project that began with a preliminary investigation of the industry and its potential.
In regards to the primary concern of energy consumption, the report states, “In its Phase I Analysis, before working with any farm partners, WWF conducted a life cycle analysis comparing a hypothetical vertical farm placed in St. Louis to conventional farms in California, where most lettuce is grown today. The analysis revealed that the overall environmental and health impact of conventionally grown lettuce produced and shipped from California to St. Louis was lower than lettuce grown in an indoor vertical farm in St. Louis.”
From there, the team set out to find out why and evaluate potential changes that would reverse those results. What they found was the type of energy being used for food production has a substantial impact on the final energy consumption. Since California has a strong investment in renewable energy, agriculture is cleaner as a result. In contrast, the base city for the ISG experiment, St. Louis, relies on a carbon-heavy mixture of coal and natural gas. By focusing on clean energy solutions, the study found much better results.
A few points of discussion in the report were investments in renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro and solar. However, it went further to discuss the benefits of natural cooling by placing ISGs underground, making use of cooling infrastructure via the Mississippi River that previously supported a coal power plant, underwater turbines and even bio-waste conversion as a source for power.
While ISG may not be the overarching solution for all problems related to commercial agriculture, it’s a promising field of study for many applications and is highly likely to play a significant role in the future of gardening.
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