Growing plants using nutrient mineral solutions in water without soil was realized during eighteenth century and this laid the foundation for the modern hydroponics industry which is valued at $6-8 billion world wide. Soil is not necessary for growth of plants and it only plays a minor role to provide grouting of the plant and act as a reservoir of nutrients for the roots to tap them. Originally conceived as solution culture to day there are large scale production systems in a dozen countries using the technology of soil-less cultivation to grow a variety of plants that include tomato, capsicum, cucumber, lettuce, leafy vegetables,some herbs and flowers, covering a space equivalent to 20,000 to 25,000 hectares. Major producing countries with strong foundation for hydroponics include Spain, Germany, Australia, Canada, USA, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, China and New Zealand.
Why is that world had to go for a production system that requires man made artificial facilities entailing huge investment and precise control protocols? There are many advantages seen by those who depend on hydroponics over the conventional land based cultivation. Though the term Aquaponics was popularly used earlier it is relatively late that world started using the term Hydroponics, possibly to distinguish it from culture system that produces aquatic plants and marine species. Most important consideration for adopting Hydroponics is its relatively tight control over the quality and safety of produce raised leaving very little to chance. Added to this land constrained countries like Singapore, Japan and Taiwan have to resort to Hydroponic System since this has the flexibility of vertical integration of the production facilities.
During the last two decades Hydroponic production technology has seen revolutionary development with the cost of investment progressively coming down and several different versions being made available as viable options. Whether it is the static solution culture, continuous flow system or Aeroponics farmers have many options to suit the investment capacity. It is no wonder the productivity potential of Hydroponics is dramatically increasing with each passing day due to continuous innovation and development. In a typical case Hydroponics system is found to be capable of increasing crop yields more than 100% of that produced by the best land based farms in the world. Yields of a crop like tomato can be as high as 2 tons to 2.5 tons per week from an area of 12,000 s.ft through hydroponics while in case of lettuce the yield reported is in the range of 3000 heads per week from an area of 20,000 s.ft. With such high yields, no wonder hydroponic system is becoming more and more popular and it is a question of time before it becomes a main stream technology establishing itself as the most preferred production system in the world.
Talking about various other advantages, water economy, optimum use of nutrients, less susceptibility to diseases, safer crops, pesticide use practically non-existent, ease of harvesting, uniform yield and assured stable production 24/7.round the year. Here are some of theses advantages reported by practitioners of hydroponics. (a) Water Conservation- Hydroponics uses much less water, savings being almost 90 and it also keeps the water clean. (b) No Pesticides are needed as disease vectors are not able to thrive in the system easily. (c) No Herbicides are used as weeds rarely thrive in such an atmosphere. (d) No commercial fertilizers are necessary, the nutrients used do not pose the risk of run off into streams and aquifers (e) Land Conservation as more produce is obtained from less ans less and less land; this becomes more dramatic when hydroponic system is vertically integrated.
Organic foods industry is presently in a melting pot with its capacity for production being limited while demand is growing exponentially. There are many practical constraints being faced by growers of organic foods with high chance of produce contamination when they are grown on land. Hydroponics system is most suited for producing relatively clean products as the green houses are almost quarantined with minimum chance of exposure to unpredictable and unmanageable environment around as it is the case with land cultivation. Probably hydroponics may yet emerge as the main stream production route for organic foods and such a situation as and when emerges further push can be expected for fast developing technologies for many other crops besides the restricted few now available.