Can we grow food without soil?

Article by Caitlin Walker and Issy Key.

Plants ­grow in the ground, right? Well, not always! In fact, growing plants without soil even has a technical term: hydroponics [1]. If plants are grown hydroponically, their roots are usually left dangling into water instead of sitting in soil [2].

The hydroponics industry is already worth US$ 23.94 billion [3]! It is most often used for growing vegetables from seed [4].

Why would you want to grow food without soil? Firstly, in water you can control the amount of nutrients and oxygen more easily than you can in soil, so plants can grow bigger and faster [4]. Water can drain out of soil, so growing lettuce hydroponically, for example, can use 13x less water [5]. One farm says that growing their greenery will use 2500x less water [6]! Without soil for weeds to grow in, fewer pesticides are also needed [4]. Light and temperature can be controlled so you don’t have to wait for the sun to shine for plants to grow [7]!

Since hydroponics don’t require fertile land, plants can grow in cities [8], or maybe even in space [9]! This means food can travel less far from the farm to our mouths, reducing emissions [5]. In fact, plants can be stacked on top of each other like high-rise flats of leafy residents, saving more of our planet’s precious space [10].

So why aren’t hydroponics used more? A downside is the high start-up costs [5] and around 82x more energy is needed to keep hydroponics running compared to normal farming [5]. In addition, sharing a water source between many plants might risk diseases and pests spreading quickly through the crop [11]. There is also debate about whether human-harming bacteria could grow [11,12,13,14,15].

­Soil-free farming may be most useful in places without much water and where renewable energy can be used [5]. High costs are an issue, but as we speak researchers are trying to make it cheaper [3]. Maybe we will see more of hydroponics in the future!


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