Dickinson College Farm
the dirt '08

Feeding The World

Wanted: Agricultural Innovation

Benjamin Sedlins '09

 

In recent weeks, the world has been wracked by riots and political unrest in response to the soaring prices of basic food stuff. Activists are calling this a global food crisis, which many claim is a direct result of the inequitable global agricultural industry, as well as increased corn usage to produce ethanol.

With the world's population expected to reach 7.5 billion by the year 2020, and global climate change threatening to drastically alter climates worldwide, food production will be a crucial humanitarian issue in the years to come. Solutions to this problem will require careful understanding of the dynamics of the crisis as well as innovation regarding current technologies and techniques.

The first stages of this innovation have already been seen, with the rise in popularity of organic farming, hydroponic farming and genetically altered species. To highlight one example of a potential solution, hydroponics is a relatively new approach to farming which attempts to maximize the use of each key resource needed in agriculture; namely water, nutrients and space.

Hydroponic farming involves growing plants suspended so that their roots are continuously bathed in a trickle of nutrient-enriched water. Because of the constant recycling of the water, and the abundance of the nutrients available directly to the plants roots, hydroponics maximizes the plants' use of both these resources. Because there is no competition between plants for nutrients, they can be grown much closer together, thereby reducing the amount of space required.

Hydroponic farming appears extraordinarily unnatural at first glance - how could growing plants without soil ever work? Originally developed by NASA to hypothetically feed long-term space missions, hydroponics has always taken a semi-radical approach to the demands we place on agriculture. But in this radicalization, we have been able to extend intense farming production to areas where it would otherwise be unthinkable. Take Israel for example, a country with one-tenth the yearly average rainfall of the US . Through implementing hydroponic farms, they have been able to maximize their use of water to great effect.

 

Hydroponics represents a departure from the traditional, agro-industry of today's world and displays precisely the type of innovation that will satiate the world's appetite. Some inventors envision hydroponic skyscrapers in the middle of urban centers around the world, feeding

the surrounding population with minimal transportation costs and maximum output. It is thinking like this that will solve the global food crisis.

However, it should not be assumed that hydroponics represents a cure-all for the current problem. Rather, this method of farming should be part of a complete reevaluation of, and subsequent solution to, how we want our food produced, and how we plan to feed our world.