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  • Last Update : 07:35 pm

The future of food

  • Published at 06:59 pm August 24th, 2020

This high tech farming technique is gaining popularity in the city 

With a growing population inside Dhaka and other cities, the space for plantations has drastically gone down. Many cities around the world have already adopted the method of soil-less cultivation. Hydroponics is the process of growing plants in liquid, sand, or gravel (or other mediums), with added nutrients, but without soil.

The main principles of hydroponics are increased oxygen to the root zone, and liquid feed delivered directly to roots. These factors result in increased growth rates, and increased yields when compared to tradition soil gardens where much lower oxygen and often nutrient levels are present.

Across Bangladesh, we can see that a rising number of modern dairy and cattle farmers too are adopting this reliable method of producing fodder -- meaning grass grown in a controlled environment throughout the year, ensuring a continuous supply of cattle feed.

According to many experts, growing vegetables on the rooftops can be considered a sustainable solution, especially for the urban population. With the use of pesticides and other harmful chemicals being commonly used, growing fruits and vegetables privately is a much cleaner, safer, and more reliable source of nutrition. Green Savers Association is one such organization working with projects such as this. Md Ishaque Faruquee, Head of Communications and Capacity Building, spoke to Dhaka Tribune about their journey, and the prospect of hydroponic plantations in Bangladesh.

Green Savers Association began their work in 2010, with a dream to create a green Dhaka city. With high-rise buildings and increasingly fewer land for trees, the idea of promoting rooftop gardens with a small team of tree lovers gradually started becoming a reality. “We are proud to have worked with over 5,000 households, 200 schools, and countless volunteers and organizations since then,” mentions Ishaque.

What prospects with hydroponics do you see in the future?

Hydroponics has the potential to sustain a large proportion of the world’s population, and to allow third world countries to feed their own people, even in places where the soil is poor and water is scarce. The technology can also be used as a valuable source of food production in places where space is scarce. From expansion of population comes the need to produce more food, create more jobs, and reduce the carbon footprint of transporting food into cities. Being able to grow and produce food within cities for urban populations eliminates the carbon footprint generated through the transport of food from rural areas to city centres. Anyone can grow crops within his/her own periphery. 

Is it a commercially viable option in Bangladesh?

There is no doubt that hydroponic farming systems are feasible as a commercial operation. The proof is in the application of this technology worldwide. There is enough information available, so that cannot be an excuse for failing. If you have the capital, then setting up a system is relatively easy. The fresh produce market will always buy up the top-quality produce at the best price. Hydroponics is designed to create an environment for the plant to grow at its genetic optimal, therefore producing the highest quality yields possible. Any business isn’t considered commercially viable until it has been in operation for at least six years. Within that period, most growers will have experienced some type of product cycle, and if they could not cope or adapt, they are no longer commercially viable. So, commercial hydroponic farms that are older than six years are economically viable, and have certain characteristics in their management structure that one should take cognisance of when evaluating such a system as an empowerment project. A climate-controlled environment enables you to grow non-seasonal vegetables, which mean you can grow throughout the year. You are not dependent on the weather conditions to make your vegetables grow. Furthermore, you can grow things that are not available in a particular season, and sell them at higher prices.

How are you facilitating the services for your clients?

First, we introduce our products online. Then, the customers come directly, and sort the products according to their place. Then our experts go and set it up. If needed, our experts even provide technical support and after-sales support.

What are the types of plants or vegetables you are growing?

Particularly leafy vegetables, as well as flower vegetables that can be harvested around the year. The most common plants, but not limited to, are as follows: Lettuce, bok choy, hybrid cabbage, basil, mint (pudina), tomatoes, capsicum, chilli, long beans, bitter gourd, squash, cucumbers, and melons, to name a few. 

What are some of the benefits of using hydroponics?

No pests, no weeds, no herbicides, no pesticides. Hydroponic systems are basically vertical, and therefore require lesser space, and allow you to produce more. Everything grows right in front of your eyes, and you can check at anytime if both leaves and roots are healthy and fresh. Moreover, you can even see the condition of your roots, how clean and fresh they are. The hydroponics process is completely soilless, so you are completely free from all soil-borne diseases. Especially, in this era, where our soil itself has become so polluted and unhygienic, water is really scarce, and each day it’s only getting worse. But, hydroponics comes as a solution -- as this method uses only 10% of the water that is used in normal agriculture. In fact, there is no wastage of water either. Hydroponics is not labour intensive at all, as the systems don’t require too much time and effort, compared to normal agriculture. Once you get things in order and create proper procedures and processes, it doesn’t require a lot of work. Hydroponics is as much a science as it is an art -- you know exactly what is going to be your output, and you can be sure of the quality of your produce. The whole system is very adaptable and scalable.

How are you creating value?

Both geographical location and the physical space where we decide to install our vertical farm should be carefully considered. Our business will not get off the ground or go very far without a good location. Our pricing must match the quality of our products, not the status quo. With the right system and distribution strategy, the local products we produce are better than anything else. We implement a system that reduces labour costs and does not require installing and maintaining expensive automation technology to be economically viable. We are adding some sort of value to our product such as packaging, cutting or combining different products into one package. We also do data management. Local farmers should not rely on data to save them from an inefficient farm setup or their inability to sell their crops. Data can amplify and accelerate a farmer’s production and sales, but only if they have the infrastructure in place to use it effectively. Extreme dedication, knowledge, and preparedness to work hard are the main key strengths of our association. 

Are the setup and raw materials expensive?

Hydroponic gardening is cost-effective, but you must understand that it requires an initial investment. Once you’re up and running, you can expect to see quicker plant growth and better plant production compared to plants in normal soil.

How much space is required to produce commercially? 

Hydroponic gardening is the key to achieving the concept of "farming in the sky". This gardening is better than soil gardening for several reasons. More plants can generally be grown in the same amount of space when compared to traditional soil gardens. Roots are delivered nutrients instead of having to stretch out in search of them. Also, hydroponic gardens can be stacked to further increase space efficiency. The main benefit of hydroponic gardening is much higher oxygen levels in the root zone when compared to a soil garden. This increased oxygen means increased nutrient uptake, and much higher rates of growth. It is also much easier to control the nutrient levels in hydroponic gardens compared to soil gardens.

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