In the first of a series on alternative crop production methods, international hydroponics consultant, Prof Gert Venter, explores hydroponics as a viable solution to global food security challenges, including water and energy constraints and a shortage of available agricultural land.

The biggest challenge for global agriculture today is producing enough food to meet the demands of the world’s exploding population.

The present global population of seven and a half billion could reach the 10 billion mark as early as 2050, and it currently takes only four days to add a further million people to the population, or 12 years to increase the population by 1 billion.

Therefore, primary global challenges include food insecurity, military defence issues, water and land scarcity, urbanisation, and energy demands. International hydroponics consultant, Prof Gert Venter, explores whether hydroponics is the key to sustainable agriculture and combatting these challenges.

Global hunger data

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations’ global hunger data, more than 10% – about 800 million people – are undernourished and do not have enough food to lead healthy, active lives.

The vast majority of these people live in developing countries where about 13% of the population is undernourished, with the highest percentage (25%) residing in sub-Saharan Africa.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data shows that the global military expenditure in 2012 of US$1,7 trillion was more than a thousand times higher than the US$1,6 billion allocated to agricultural support programmes (OECD estimates for 2016).

Greatest challenges

Plants need water, air, energy (light), a suitable climate and certain nutrients to grow, and this will have to be addressed if we want to deal with future food supply challenges.

Water is arguably the greatest of the four main global challenges.

World Health Organization statistics show agriculture uses about 70% of the available freshwater on our planet. This scenario is unsustainable in the long-run and requires renewed focus on efficient water use. The aim should be to convert tons of food produced per hectare to tons of food produced per cubic metre of water used for production.

Available areas of farmland suitable for crop production are declining at tremendous rates, exacerbating the challenges involved in meeting the food demands of the future.

In addition, FAO data shows that 54% of the global population is already living in urban areas. This figure is expected to rise to more than 60% before mid-century, and more than 80% by the end of the century.

Urban spread in the form of megacities, as well as areas required for roads, railways, airports and industries, will impact negatively on agricultural land needed for food production. It will also lead to other challenges such as the daily supply, distribution, and preparation of food, which has to be brought in from rural areas or other countries around the world.

By the end of this century, farmers will need to produce double the amount of food with less water and land, using less energy, while facing sharp increases in the costs of energy, labour, mechanisation, and fertilisers.

A new approach is therefore necessary to sustain our planet. We need to advance our expertise in plant production, food technology, sustainable management of natural resources, as well as the natural environment.

The primary challenge will be to safely provide more food to allow people to maintain a good quality of life, while also maintaining a healthy planet.

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