Does sustainable farming really need soil?

Does sustainable farming really need soil?

July 31, 2018

Does sustainable farming really need soil?

The shortage of farmland and water for irrigating fields represents an enormous challenge in terms of sustainable farming, which today is increasingly turning to “soil-free agriculture”, without sacrificing flavor.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) experts estimate that to cover the demand for dietary protein from a constantly growing world population, the amount of land under cultivation will have to be increased by 60%. Other estimates, as the volume Fixing Food produced by BCFN in partnership with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) explains, put this figure at actually more than 100%. As if that were not enough, during the last 40 years unsustainable farming policies and other factors such as climate change have impoverished farmland to the point where 30% of it has become unproductive, as the new volume Nourished Planet published by BCFN describes. 

Sharp change in direction

In terms of use of space, there is no future for the current food production system. There is no doubt about this, and so a decisive change is needed in the way land is farmed, moving towards sustainable farming, perhaps by means of a sharp change in direction: from horizontal to vertical. When people refer to soil-free agriculture, meaning farming without land, they often mean vertical farming, in which plants are grown on multiple levels in a kind of multistory skyscraper. This is absolutely not new. The archaeological record shows that this practice was used in ancient Babylon and by the Aztecs, but its commercial use, arising from the shortage of farmland, started to gain ground in the second half of the 20C, and in 1997 the United States Space Agency (NASA) also launched a series of farming trials on the Mir space station, and succeeded in growing strong, nourishing, tasty plants. Since the first commercial vertical farm was created in Singapore in 2012, other countries have begun to invest in this new approach to sustainable farming: in Japan, semi-conductor factories have been transformed into lettuce farms supported by the interest of large corporations like Fujitsu, and in the United Kingdom Growing Underground has converted a Second World War air-raid shelter into a farm for soil-free farming. The U.S. AeroFarms, based in New Jersey, has the potential not only to become one of the world's largest vertical farms - it already grows more than 250 types of greens and harvests tens of tons of vegetables a year - but also to breathe new life into the region's depressed economy.

High-tech, precision farming

Tomatoes and water-melon predominate amongst the vegetables most often grown by soil-free methods, but lettuce, strawberries, egg-plant, melons, ornamental plants and flowers also feature. There are various techniques, all in continuous evolution: they range from the more traditional hydroponics, in which plants grow with their roots immersed in water, to the most advanced methods, in which plants stand on a film of hydro-gel, by way of aeroponics, in which water is replaced by air containing misted water and nutrients. 

These methods, which probably represent the future of sustainable farming, have impressive advantages, since they save space and water while also increasing yields, are unaffected by climate change or bad weather, and allow regulation of the contents of beneficial substances (such as mineral salts) in the end product and protection of crops from diseases and parasites. For example, aeroponic systems can reduce use of water by 98%, of fertilizers by 60% and of pesticides by 100%, while with hydroponic methods yields of tomatoes increase tenfold and of lettuce threefold. The latest step in soil-free farming? Plant cells grown in the laboratory for use as food, as reported in an article recently published in the Food Research International journal by a Finnish research team. 

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