Updated: Mar 4
In the future of food is at home - part I', I laid out a foundation of reasons why civilization needs to move towards growing their own food at home. In this article (part II), I will explore a few more specifics reasons why this is a good idea. In the next article (part III), I will show you how to build your own indoor vertical hydroponic farm using cheap locally sourced materials. The goal of this hydroponic system is to provide consistently reliable produce with the least amount of maintenance.
Why is growing food at home the future?
Consumers generally choose to shop at a grocery store based on a convenient location but also considering cost and/or freshness of produce. What if the location, lowest cost and best freshness was readily available in your kitchen or basement? That's more convenient than going to the grocery store or getting groceries delivered. Home grown produce also guarantees the highest nutritional value and fresh, pesticide-free produce. There is also little to no waste as you will only harvest what you need, at the time you need it. Never running out of lettuce or tomatoes is convenience. Having fresh herbs, garlic and kale any time, year-round is convenience. Strawberries are always in season. Home grown gives you the power to decide what to grow and eat, and have a consistently fresh supply, forever. To fully realize the potential of growing at home, consumers need to have a turn key system, full of their favorite plant varieties and spend less time growing it than time spent at the store. That's a big ask but is a problem worth exploring. That's where automated growing systems come into play. Automated indoor hydroponic gardens facilitate convenience.
The technology already exists to fully automate watering, nutrients, pH balance and lighting without breaking the bank. There is still the issue of seed production, germination and the occasional hydroponic system clean but there is not a lot more left to innovate.
There are many companies selling automated growing systems, like Urban Cultivator, Tower Garden and more. These stand alone systems are smart and aesthetically designed indoor hydroponic systems for your kitchen but they're not likely to take us mainstream. To reach the mass market, it's going to take a company like IKEA, that already dominates new kitchen installation hardware, to standardize a built-in hydroponic kitchen for the mass market. In fact, they have already given some thought to it and are testing the popularity of products like KRYDDA / VÄXER in the UK and Europe. In 2016, product developer Ronnie Runesson, at IKEA Sweden, says they wanted to, "find a solution so that the customer could grow vegetables 12 months a year". Perhaps indoor hydroponics going mainstream might not be so far off after all.
"find a solution so that the customer could grow vegetables 12 months a year."
Four years later, unfortunately, it does not look like IKEA are going to pull it off. Perhaps the barrier is consumer demand? I don't think so. Who doesn't want a virtually free and endless supply of fresh food at arms length? I think there is an absence in the market for a true 'turn key' affordable solution. One that you buy, plug in and turn on. One that your architect or builder advises on installing when designing or building a new house or kitchen. To fully realize this system as a standard feature in every kitchen around the world, it's going to take a disruptor. A disruptor that can tap into the manufacturing and building industry. At best, Home Farm Hydroponics was created to inspire others with this vision. At worst, we hope to turn a few black thumbs green.
If the remaining problems can be solved, could growing indoors go mainstream? If so, the convenience alone might be the #1 reason the future of food is at home.
An entire week may have passed before the vegetables you buy at the grocery store actually get to our plate. Fresh produce can lose up to 30% of it's nutritional value after just 24 hours. There are many studies that show evidence of nutrient loss e.g. Spinach. Red lettuce regularly goes slimy either before or within a couple days of purchasing. Unquestionably, growing at home and harvesting when you need it gives you unparalleled maximum nutritional health benefits. Grocery store shelf life is such a big loss of income for corporations that an entire industry was born. GMO (genetically modified organism) foods and agri-biotech industries were challenged to specifically come up with ways to increase shelf life of all produce. Maximizing profits over the safety of our health, food and environmental issues.
Nutrition could be a subject in it's own right in our K-12 education system. Optimizing our health is arguably the most important subject we could ever learn yet the average person knows very little. One of the largest studies ever recorded on our youth found that less than 1% of children had the ideal quality diet. That's not surprising considering every single venue for children has predominantly fried fast food. It's also a staggering representation of how the commercial food industry does not have our best interests at heart. Take the Kellogg's corn flakes story for example. Originally a breakfast cereal designed by it's founder in the nineteenth century as a healthy plant based choice with no added sugar or preservatives. Then in the 1950s, via a change of ownership, the brand becomes a series of unhealthy sugary cereals that are still sold today. Our bodies are designed to take advantage of very specific nutrients on a molecular level that has fundamental outcome on our mind, body and everything we do. In the last few decades, scientists have begun to unravel some of the most profound secrets of nutrition, including how food plays a critical role in disease reversal and prevention.
The internet has made the science of nutrition available at our finger tips. It's also full of misinformation as well. Fortunately, hundreds of publicly available scientific publishers like the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health help us discover the truth. Unfortunately, corporations do not have our health and best interests at heart so we need to dissect industry funded studies with carefully designed favorable outcomes. For this reason, it is wise to be guided by trustworthy nutrition and health professionals that can navigate these complex studies on our behalf. I find that Dr. Michael Gregor, among many other reputable nutritionists, give refreshingly unbias and uncorrupt summaries of evidence based nutrition.
You might be thinking a home based hydroponic system can't possibly provide ALL the nutrition our body needs. The science on the healthiest diet has been published for some time. You might be surprised to hear that the whole food plant based diet is the original, and continues to be, the most healthy diet for our bodies. In a nutshell, our bodies need a specific quantity and variety of beans, berries, fruits, vegetables, greens, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, whole grains and water. The only critical nutrient we cannot get from plants (or animals for that matter) is Vitamin B12 which is created by micro-organisms in the soil. B12 aside, a noble goal for indoor hydroponics is to develop a system that delivers just the right amount of produce from each food group variety that we need to be healthy and thrive. This sounds like a really big hydroponic system all over your house! Oh well, we need to take baby steps before we can invent the Star Trek replicator.
Pretend for a moment that human kind stopped emitting all greenhouse gases and moved to 100% renewable energy. There is still the issue of sequestering 100s of billions of tons of CO2 still in our atmosphere. The two most significant ways our planet absorbs CO2 is in our oceans and our soil. We do not want the ocean to absorb any more CO2 but we do want to put the CO2 back in the ground where it came from. According to NASA, soil (via plants) can potentially absorb and store up to 3 times the CO2 in our atmosphere. If you look at the monitoring of CO2 and CO from NASA in the video below (A Year in the Life of Earth's CO2), you will see that the world's carbon dioxide emissions are naturally and significantly reduced during the months of June and July. The CO2 absorption is predominantly due to big agriculture plantation crops that reach peak coverage the northern hemisphere during the summer months. This NASA study simplifies what most people think is too hard or impossible. The solution to climate change is permanently repurposing and regenerating the planet's soil and land with plants. The way nature intended it.
Ergo the problem is that we currently use these lands to feed ourselves. Therefore this is yet another incredibly compelling reason why using indoor hydroponic farms for growing food are a critical and necessary part of our future.
Back in reality, we are still pumping 40+ billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. The food chain has already started to collapse and entire species of plants and animals are disappearing every day. All living things are struggling to keep up with the rapidly changing conditions of the environment. We tend not to think of how the natural world's food chain collapse could effect our food supply, however food production, processing, retail, distribution and consumption are all beginning to be impacted. Droughts, floods, heat waves and other extreme weather related events have drastic consequences on food production, productivity and soil health, and all these roads lead to severe food shortages.
The automobile, aircraft, energy, and food sectors contribute a dominant 73% of total emissions. 24% of these emissions comes from agriculture. Growing food at home would significantly reduce demand from all sectors, especially agriculture. We also need a rapid shit to solar powered houses to give us independence from the grid. Plus a shift from city water to capturing and managing fresh rainwater. These three consumer based changes in solar energy, water storage and food consumption would create a drastic reduction in global emissions.
If your neighbor was not paying for electrical, water or food bills, would you want the same? Of course you would! If you ask individual people what they are doing about climate change you will not get many meaningful answers. It's kind of depressing and is another reason why I started Home Farm Hydroponics.
To survive climate change, we need to regenerate our soil and simultaneously change our consumer reliance on unsustainable sources of energy, water and food. This is just another reason why growing your own food at home could play a significant part of necessary change.
The list of sustainability issues in each fresh produce product we buy is expansive: limited raw material resources, production, distribution, transportation, non-recyclable packaging, food miles or carbon footprint, soil fertility, biodiversity, pests, air quality, waterways, animal agriculture, battery farming and disease, social and economic impact and dare I say, much more. Taking a first principal approach, sustainability means being able to repeat process without damaging the environment. So buying lettuce from the grocery store that is packaged as 'sustainable' is actually quite misleading. In fact, just about everything from growing to packaging to getting it to you was likely unsustainable.
What if, by comparison, I were to grow my own food at home? This has the potential to eliminate nearly all the sustainability issues. Is it possible to produce vegetables without using any unsustainable resources? Excluding the permanently re-usable materials in the system itself, we are left with energy, water, pH balancer, plant nutrients, growing medium and seeds. Filtered city water is not sustainable but rain water catchment tanks are. Seeds shipped by mail are not sustainable but most can be harvested from flowering the plants and stored. Electricity is supplied from the grid is currently not sustainable but renewable from household solar and on-site battery storage are as close as one can get. pH balance can be adjusted by adding more water or adding other natural sustainable waste ingredients. Nutrients shipped in packaging are not sustainable, but nutrient solutions can also be made from left over plant waste. The solutions are there and it seems possible. In comparison, the modern grocery store is not a sustainable way to source produce. While indoor hydroponics is not completely sustainable either, it's a massive step in the right direction. Part of Home Farm Hydroponics mission is to explore this goal in more detail.
As the world population grows, so does demand on food supply. As food production expands, so does it's demand on the world's natural resources. Extrapolate this model further and the system breaks. Big agriculture does not have a solution to this, in fact, they are only still in business due to a government price guarantee from more than $20b in tax payer subsidies and rapidly growing. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed these gaps in our food supply system. Combining climate change, pandemics and other causes, a systemic global food supply catastrophe could be just around the corner. People may need to grow their own food without leaving home just to survive.
"Homefarmhydroponics.com was created to inspire the average person to grow their own food at home."
A National Geographic study indicates 97% of the planet is saltwater and only 2.5% is freshwater. More than 68% of freshwater is frozen in icecaps and glaciers. More than 31% is ground water, and only 0.3% is surface water in rivers, lakes and swamps. This means less than 1% of the Earth’s water is usable. From this fresh water supply available to us, over 70% is used for agriculture. Plenty has been published on the subject of water use and the need to reduce, reuse and recycle. United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has predicted that the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion by 2050 and the world needs to produce 70% more food to feed all these extra people. There is just not enough water for business as usual to continue. Change in how we grow our food is necessary.
In the face of these challenges, civilization is still well short of supplying the world healthy nutritional food. While indoor hydroponics saves up to 95% of the same water usage using than 1% of the same area, it still comes with some challenges. Municipal tap water contamination is an issue. No matter where you live, rainwater will be superior to tap water. The ideal hydroponics system sources and stores it's water from the sky. Alternatively, a RO (reverse osmosis) water filtration system is a good idea to bring the parts per million TDS (total dissolved salts) down to zero. Considering the amount of water you save from growing your own food, no matter what your water source, hydroponics is still light years ahead of soil grown produce.
Let's follow an example path for a punnet of strawberries from an actual US supplier of strawberries in the Netherlands. This is an extreme example but the vast majority of consumers don't know any better. Corporate strawberry farmers purchase high shelf-life GMO seeds instead of seed saving from pedigree heirloom plants. Before the seed is planted, the soil needs to be conditioned, fertilized with machines and chemicals. It's then sowed with strawberry seeds by machine, has gallons of water poured on it plus gallons of pesticides to keep the bugs away. Then they harvest, spray it again with a dose of shelf-life increasing chemicals, package it up in clear plastic and ship it by air from the Netherlands to the United States. Then shipped by ground until it reaches your state via a refrigerated cargo container until it arrives at your local grocery store on it's 5th or 6th day. Then you buy it and create the demand for the cycle to repeat itself. By the time you get to eat the last strawberry in your punnet, it's gone soggy and/or moldy. In fact, I nearly always find a punnet of moldy strawberries at my local grocery store every time I shop. Growing indoor hydroponic strawberries at home can now be done year-round and can eliminate this ridiculous cycle. The quality of freshly harvested home grown strawberries is unmatched.
Hydroponics also allows for the perfect growing conditions. It is difficult to find an outdoor farm grown plant that is not perfectly healthy. I am talking about every stem and every leaf, right to the tip. Indoor plants that are given everything they need to grow practically perfect from bottom to top. What varies is taste and that depends on nutrients and growing conditions. In this respect, the farmer can manipulate the end product until it's reached perfection. Perfect quality, every time.
Staying on the subject of strawberries, they are unfortunately consistently in the top 10 pesticide laden foods available in the grocery store. It is estimated that 95% of Americans have pesticides in their bodies. Every year, 3 pounds per person of toxic chemicals are sprayed onto our food. A key benefit to growing your own strawberries and other fresh produce at indoors at home, is the piece of mind that you know there are no pesticides on your food, unless you sprayed your plants yourself. Even if you have grown any plants indoors, you would still likely have encountered pests at some stage. However, there are many non-toxic ways to treat your plants and reduce/manage infestations. I prefer to automate pest control the way nature intended, with predators. For example, the natural predator to the white fly (that loves indoor plants) is the ladybug. I'll be posting more articles on how to treat pest infestations at home. The good news is, there is an easy and non-toxic way to do it, so it's not as bad as you might think.
EPA estimates* that 4.5 pounds of waste comes from an average household daily in America. Growing your own food at home can drastically cut the waste we put in landfills. The material waste that comes from your hydroponic farm is limited to; water, nutrient, growing medium and plant waste. Nutrient rich water that you may be flushing out once a month or replacing an overgrown or flowering plant (plant waste) - are both great for composting. To get closer to being waste free, use rainwater from roof drain catchment and store it.
The most popular growing medium for vertical hydroponics is rockwool. It is also arguably the worst and most unsustainable. Rockwool is made from various earth minerals and polymers heated in a furnace to over 2600 degrees for hours to make a saleable mineral wool product and these machines run 24/7. Check this short video if you want to see how it's made. That said, there is no ideal natural or sustainable medium yet as good as rockwool. Organic material is fully sustainable but tends to attract the bugs, disintegrates in towers and non-organic is generally not environmentally friendly and is not sustainable. There is still a need for a sterile, pH neutral, natural and sustainable grow medium to take the market.
All things considered, indoor and outdoor hydroponics has significantly less waste than traditional farming. More importantly, hydroponics is the only one that offers a potential of truly achieving a target of zero waste.
Critical to gaining traction in the mass consumer market is the upfront cost of an indoor hydroponic system. While some companies alleviate this problem by offering an affordable payment plan, the average every day consumer is not going to shell out thousands of dollars for a set up. This makes bringing the price down significantly, OR integrating it into building code requirements, a fundamental challenge. In some countries, like France, rooftop hydroponic systems are mandated on new builds. Homefarmhydroponics.com was made to share the 'do it yourself' or 'open-source' version of vertical farming. There are no patents and all the equipment can be sourced from the local hardware store to build your own. To truly be part of the global sustainability solution, everyone needs to be able to make their own indoor hydroponic system. A small-ish homefarmhydroponic.com set up of 24 pods (4 towers of 6 pods), that will sustainably grow most of a small family's leafy green needs, still costs $500 in hardware store materials alone. Despite the fact that it pays for itself over time, we still have some work to do to drastically reduce the entry level cost of a reliable set up and make it truly affordable to everyone.
A food security crisis is imminent. Food shortages are going to become more widespread. In many parts of the world, it's already here. Is this the most important issue now and for the next century? Will there be war over food and water? How will access to fresh and clean water be rationed?
Many factors can influence food security but none more than climate change, war, and pandemics. It's these global events all put pressure on the food supply system. Even without these external pressures, the world already lacks sufficient healthy produce to feed every person. The CEO of Plenty Inc., Matt Bernard, articulately covers in this subject in the video below.
Even if climate change was solved and war is avoided, how can our food be purchased safely during a pandemic? What if the next pandemic has a significantly higher mortality rate and going to the grocery store was a life or death situation? As I write this article in the fall of 2020, we are potentially entering into the second deadly wave in the COVID-19 pandemic where once again food security will be tested. In these extraordinary times, we may need to start growing a sustainable amount of fresh food at home just to survive.
Every year there is a new headline about salmonella in romaine lettuce or new studies of toxic pesticides in our leafy vegetables. There are thousands of articles and studies on how the food industry corporations are contaminating our food. There's also plenty of evidence about why we should not trust in the government, and their politically appointed EPA and USDA industry executives, to do the right thing by our health. Educating ourselves about food is the best way forward to protect against outside influence of the quality and health of our food. This is one reason I decided to take back control of my health with an indoor farm at home.
Indoor hydroponics is a great way to learn more about your own health and how to grow sustainable and reliable food at home.
There are many reasons why the future of food could and perhaps should be at home. However, while food is abundantly available, and our routine reliance on grocery stores is unchallenged, there will not be sufficient demand to move towards growing at home. In the not too distant future, we may not have a choice. We are running out of time.
It is my hope that the information gathered in this article will inspire us to relearn how to grow our own food. Hydroponics at hyper local farms or at home based farms may play a critical part in making a sustainable future for us all.
In the next article, I demonstrate how to build your own indoor home farm hydroponic system that anyone can make using common building
materials. I will show you how to grow the freshest and heathiest food you have ever seen, every time. Let the fun begin!
Published 12.20.20. * Updated links 1.24.2020
#GMO, food security, public health and environmental harm:
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#Evidence based nutrition: