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Hydroponics vs. Traditional Agriculture: Which One Is Better?

Among agricultural practices, hydroponics reigns supreme in execution if not popularity (yet). Among agricultural practices, hydroponics reigns supreme in execution if not popularity (yet).

There's nothing like a little competition and for food growers the grocery store is ground zero. Hydroponics hit the ground running after entering mainstream culture only a few decades ago, proving a worthy adversary to the behemoth that is traditional agriculture.

Is this zippy, sterile, and high-tech new comer any match for a centuries old way of living? If you look at what modern agriculture has become, the answer is a resounding yes.

Contemporary farming is no longer a home enterprise held together by the rural family. Big Ag and mass plantings are the way the agriculture industry generates the majority of their profits for the moment. The sustainability of these practices is doubtful. But what about hydroponics? RosebudMag.com weighs in to see who takes the cake.

1. Lowest Use Of Pesticides

WIN - Hydroponics.

Hydroponic produce is grown in sterile indoor conditions that prevent the introduction of soil-borne pests and disease. This has its ups and downs, since growing many plants in a small area can lead to a widespread and difficult to control epidemic if one should occur. But hydroponic pest control is chiefly based on preventative measures and any good grower will keep their crop sterile by making sure everything that goes into the grow house is properly cleaned.

If pesky creatures do happen to find their way in to a closed hydroponic system, most growers prefer organic means of pest control like ladybugs, copper mesh, neem oil, sulfur, pyretherin, insecticidal soap, and other natural substances. If (and this is if) industrial pesticides were used on a hydroponic crop, their effect would still be hypothetically less than that of a traditional farm since the chemicals would be contained (as opposed to released into the open air) and unable to leach directly into soil or eventually find their way into water tables.

While soil-based agriculture is capable of earth-friendly pest control like the kind employed by the organic industry, most farmers choose to douse their crops with any number of chemicals to make sure that everything within a mile radius drops dead.

2. Impact of Fertilizer Use

WIN - Hydroponics.

Because hydroponics is a closed system, fertilizers used to feed crops are cycled over and over again while the plants are irrigated. Once a certain balance of nutrients is reached in the reservoir, this water is reused anywhere from 10 to 14 days until its nutrition level has been depleted. After that, the solution is still usable. It can be poured evenly over plants growing in the ground to give them a little, albeit diluted, boost.

Soil-based agriculture, at least what it has become today, is a fertilizer glutton. Farmers overload their fields in tight intervals with both inorganic and organic fertilizers to ensure that crops have far more than they need to grow their absolute best.

The effects of this collective overreaction are devastating for water tables and the ocean. Excessive amounts of fertilizer from Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Ohio have been draining into the Gulf of Mexico since the 1980s, rendering the southern coastline of the US a literal dead zone.

As of this year, an area the size of New Jersey is completely devoid of life due to the affects of algae bloom. As the fertilizer runs into the gulf, algae colonies explode and rapidly die. Their decomposition chokes the water of oxygen, and sea life, no longer able to breath, either dies with it or is forced out of the area.

3. Lowest Energy Consumption

DISPUTED (but most likely traditional agriculture wins).

This is a hot topic that puts hydroponics on the powder keg: Are the benefits outweighed by its energy consumption?

If growers do not use the most up-to-date lighting technologies available, hydroponics could be a total energy sucker. But there is always room for a greenhouse or even outdoor grow. If a hydroponic farmer harnesses the power of the sun and/or supplements it with high-efficiency grow lights, their operation is sound.

But what happens if the plug is pulled or humans have to turn back to the land? If times got really tough, a hydroponic set-up could be maintained with a lot of hand watering and constant control monitoring.

This is where agriculture can pride itself. Outdoor soil-based crops harness the free energy of the sun, one of the only things they haven't yet managed to destroy. It's the reason humans have made it to where they are now, from the cradle of civilization to the mass manufacturing of foodstuffs – seeds sown in the ground, watered, and left under the sun have changed the course of mankind forever.

4. Lowest Water Consumption

WIN - Hydroponics.

Hydroponics is famed for using up to 90% less water than traditional agriculture, once again because of its concept of a closed system. Water is cycled over and over again to irrigate plants, making for a highly efficient system perfect for drought conditions or areas where there is little access to fresh water, like deserts (ie. Nevada) or contamination zones (ie. Fukushima).

Agriculture depends on rain, which is good, but this can often lead to inconsistent yields if there is a drought, and puts farmers at the mercy of the weather. Arable land is limited this way too, since locating a source of water dependable enough to irrigate a field is impossible in some regions.

5. Most Profitable For A Home On The Range

WIN - Hydroponics.

Hydroponics might be soon be credited with reviving the family farm. If a landowner has a small or unsuitable piece of land, it can still be used to grow rows and rows of plants on top of one another in a greenhouse. Not only does this maximize growing space, it gives small producers a chance to break in to an otherwise dominated market with a hydroponic niche.

And since many leafy crops such as lettuce and herbs have a very short turnaround time from seed to harvest, the yields themselves can be greater than if they were planted in soil, all of which equals a tidy business for new farmers.

Agriculture is dominated by farming corporations for the most part, but small family-run producers and organic producers (bless their souls) are alive and kicking too, although definitely as a minority.

So who wins? If you examine these five points, it would appear that hydroponics takes the crown. But the truth is that both hydroponics and traditional agriculture are needed to ensure food security globally. Agriculture just has a lot of cleaning up to do and hydroponics will be there to fill in the gaps… and maybe one day even take over.

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Hydroponic lettuce grew faster in this comparison.
Last modified on Thursday, 10 October 2013 19:21

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