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The global population is growing rapidly at a rate of 1.1% annually, putting pressure on natural resources such as food. To keep up with the growing number of people, farming needs to become more efficient. One way to do this is hydroponics. The term hydroponics is a subset of “hydroculture” which refers to growing plants without the use of soil. It uses nutrient-rich solutions in a water solvent and is typically done indoors, in a controlled environment. The latter is a growing area of commercial food production and is also used for home food production by hobbyists. It is recognized as one of the fastest developing soil-less cultivating practices globally. Hydroponics is also said to report a higher yield than conventional farming. Furthermore, it is up to 70 per cent more water efficient than traditional methods, allowing a longer growing season.
Although the concept of hydroponics has started to gain momentum over the last few years, the concept is not new and has been used by ancient civilizations for centuries. Today, farmers are slowly increasing their use of hydroponics, and researchers are looking more closely at how it could solve future food problems.
Global farming industry and hydroponics
The food and agribusiness industry are currently worth USD 5 trillion, and the figure is expected to grow. Projections suggest that demand will increase by 70% by 2050. Hydroponics is therefore likely to help the global food industry meet the supply shortfall.
In addition, farmland per capita is likely to decrease to 1800m² from 2,200m² by 2030. Furthermore, pests cause 10-16% of crops to be destroyed annually. Hydroponics provides an effective solution to attain self-sufficiency in food, as the technology utilizes space more efficiently. A growing consumption of exotic salad crops and an increasing need for global food security are expected to drive the market.
Europe currently stands at the forefront of the global hydroponics market, accounting for 37% of market share. European countries including France and the Netherlands have large greenhouse agriculture areas, helping market growth. In the Netherlands, for instance, plants are cultivated in tunnel-like greenhouses. Scandinavian countries including Finland and Sweden use hydroponics to grow crops in the winter as it allows plants to be grown indoors, away from harsh winter climates.
The Asia Pacific region is also focusing on the hydroponics market and is currently the second largest region for hydroponics revenue. They have been investing heavily in R&D to improve the industry. Hydroponics can increase production, helping feed the large populations in countries like India and China. Furthermore, China is expected to witness the largest in hydroponics over the coming year.
North America is considered to have the fastest growing hydroponics market in the world. Major contributing economies include the U.S, Mexico, and Canada. Over recent years, they have been able to significantly increase production. For instance, research from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests that the production of greenhouse tomato doubled between the years 2007 to 2013.
The global hydroponics market is predicted to receive abundant growth opportunities over the coming years and competition is anticipated to escalate as soon as organizations begin understanding the huge development openings that the market offers.
Organizations are directly concentrating on cutting edge imaginative innovations and investments in the hydroponics sectors. Some of the leading players in the market include, Greentech Agro LLC (US), Argus Control Systems (Canada), Logiqs BV (The Netherlands), Lumigrow, Inc. (US), General Hydroponics, Inc. (US), Village Farms International (Canada) and Hydrodynamics International, Inc. (US).
There have also been several recent investments in the industry. For instance, Scotts Miracle-Gro spent USD 136 million on indoor-growing company Gavita. They also invested in other companies including Boulder’s Aerogrow, General Hydroponics Inc. and Botanicare.
Hydroponics and ME
The Middle East is home to 12 of the world’s most water-scarce countries, posing a challenge for the agriculture sector. The latter makes the region heavily dependent on food imports, with 80-90% of the food in the UAE and Saudi Arabia being imported. As a result, the GCC’s food import bill is estimated to reach USD 53.1 billion by 2020 – a growth of 105% over 10 years. GCC economies could therefore benefit from the use of hydroponics and have prioritized it over recent years. As part of the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment’s food security strategy, hydroponics and organic farming will be prioritized in the coming years. For instance, in the UK 24 percent of the land is available for agriculture, while in the UAE it is only 1 percent. Even where land is available the GCC countries face severe water shortages. Experts say that estimates at current analysis water inflow to agriculture from underground sources in GCC will last for 30 years at best. Moreover, the industrialisation and increase in population in the GCC countries implies that non-agricultural use of water is increasing rapidly. It is predicted that by 2025 domestic use of water will double while industrial demand will increase threefold.
UAE-based company Badia Farms recently announced the launch of the GCC’s first commercial vertical indoor farm which allows UAE residents to get their produce on the day of harvest. The company uses hydroponic technology and vertical farming techniques to produce 18 types of pesticide-free vegetables indoors. Other key players in the region’s hydroponic agriculture producers is Emirates Hydroponics Farms (EHF), Salata Farms and Pegasus Agritech.
A company called Pegasus Agriculture is currently planning hydroponic projects, farming facilities, and manufacturing all over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), including Oman, Qatar, and UAE.
Hydroponics farm owner Mr. Ali Ahmad Saad Al Kaabi, says that his 500 m2 hydroponics farm had produced 70 tonnes of fruit and vegetables in a year.
Is it a smart investment?
There are a few important factors to consider:
1) High productivity with high setup costs
Hydroponics allows faster plant growth throughout the year, allowing larger yields. In order to do this, however, a large amount of costly equipment must be purchased leading to high setup costs.
2) Eco-friendly but high running costs
Hydroponic systems allow water to be recycled, which means that hydroponic farms only use 10% of the water that a normal farm uses. In most cases, they also require less fertilizer – often only as little as a quarter of the amount needed in a normal farm. Plants grown in these systems are also free of pesticides. These eco-friendly qualities, however, come at a price. Hydroponic systems require a lot of electricity, which is costly.
3) Feasible yet vulnerable
Hydroponic farming is water-efficient, enabling it to work in dry climates. Hydroponic growing trays can be stacked on top of one another, and plants can be placed closer side by side than they can in soil, making it more space-efficient than traditional farming. Since nearly all environmental conditions can be controlled artificially, unconventional growing spaces can be used – uninhabited buildings, disused railway tunnels, etc.
However, hydroponic systems are vulnerable to power failures. In systems where roots are highly exposed, plants can dry out rapidly in the absence of water. Nutrient and pH imbalances can build up far quicker in a solution than in soil. This means that an entire crop can be wiped out very quickly if something goes wrong. Similarly, water-borne diseases can spread quickly and widely, and water-borne microorganisms can contaminate solutions fairly easily.
4) Reduced need for transportation but requires monitoring
Hydroponics allows plants to be grown away from their natural habitats so they are closer to consumers. The latter reduces transport costs and provides consumers with fresher goods.
The challenge, on the other hand, is that these plants cannot be left unattended for extended periods of time and must be attended to be a farmer or an automated device.
5) Monoculture not a problem but requires expertise
Farmers do not need to think about crop-rotation and in-demand crops can be focused on throughout the year, as nutrient-exhaustion is not a problem.
However, farmers require extensive training to learn the right techniques to do this effectively.
What is the best solution?
The limited availability of land and water poses a challenge for the Middle East, with as little as 1% of land being available for agriculture in countries like the UAE.
Understanding the pros and cons suggests that the Middle East is a good fit for indoor farming because of water scarcity and affordable power. Moreover, the increased derived demand for food and beverage consumption in the GCC creates potential for hydroponics adoption in the region.
FarmTech experts recommend using hydroponics to sustain and meet the on growing demand for food products and curb national exchequer on import of these products. Experts also believe that if applied correctly, the use of hydroponics and vertical farming can eventually help the Middle East rank amongst the top food produce exporters in the world.