Could soilless agriculture help solve our food crisis?

The world is in the grip of a food crisis. In many parts of the world, agricultural land is no longer cultivable due to excessive use of pesticides, droughts and extreme weather events caused by climate change. Good quality soils to grow crops to feed the world’s growing population are becoming increasingly scarce.

So, is there a way to produce food without needing to use land? Several companies are doing just that, using a variety of methods such as growing underwater, using nutrient-rich moisture, or reusing coffee grounds as fertilizer.

There are a few well-established methods, such as aeroponics, where plant roots are suspended and sprayed with a nutrient-rich mist. Another is aquaponics, where fish are raised alongside plants, and their waste is used to feed the plants.

Not only does being able to grow food without the need for soil have implications for growing crops on Earth, it could also be essential to sustaining our stay on the Moon or Mars. Being able to grow plants without soil will be key to having a reliable food source and helping us maintain a presence on other planets.

In this gallery, we show you some of the projects that show that it is possible to grow food in a sustainable and more environmentally friendly way.

Edo Radici Felici, Italy

Edo Radici Felici’s facility in Quarrata, Italy uses a bespoke aeroponics system to grow various vegetable species. Aeroponics is an alternative method of growing plants by suspending their roots in the air and irrigating them with a nutrient-rich solution, eliminating the need to use soils. In this image, Leonardo Lenzi, partner and head of research and development at Edo, checks the lettuces before they are harvested and sent to the Coldiretti market. Photo by Vittoria Lorenzetti/Parallelozero

This image shows a section of the structure of the floating system. Plants have an 18-day life cycle from planting to harvest. The roots hang in the air and are fed through an irrigation system with nozzles that spray nutrients onto the plant. Photo by Vittoria Lorenzetti/Parallelozero

Hydroponic Village, Indonesia

A child walks down an alley with hydroponic vegetables on one side in Lolu Village, Palu, Central Sulawesi Province, Indonesia. The village is nicknamed Hydroponic Village because almost all households grow vegetables using a hydroponic system (the process of growing plants in liquid instead of soil), either for their own consumption or for sale. The Indonesian government is encouraging its citizens to utilize their home gardens by growing crops using a hydroponic system in an effort to improve food security after the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Basri Marzuki/NurPhoto/Getty Images

A detailed image of food grown by residents using hydroponic methods in Lolu Village, Palu, Central Sulawesi Province, Indonesia. Photo by Basri Marzuki/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Zero Farms, Italy

Anna Mastellaro and Anita Bonotto, agronomists in the Zero M facility in Zero Farms in Pordenone, Italy, check out lots of basil, chives, mizuna, and other vegetables. All plants are grown in aeroponic setups without the use of soil or substrates. Instead of using large, expensive industrial buildings, Zero uses a system of modular units that can be easily installed on a smaller scale. Photo by Vittoria Lorenzetti/Parallelozero

Biologist Francesco Dose works with mint cuttings from the experimental aeroponic system at Zero Farms, Pordenone, Italy. Photo by Vittoria Lorenzetti/Parallelozero

National Agricultural Demonstration Zone, China

Victor Lo checks the water filtration system of his aquaponics production base in the National Agricultural Demonstration Zone in Kaiping City, Jiangmen, China. Lo, Fung Leung and Mandy Tam came to the Kaiping National Agricultural Demonstration Area to research aquaponic cultivation methods. During five years of research, the team managed to solve many problems related to this system and filed nearly 10 patents. To date, the base annually produces some 300 tonnes of organic vegetables, most of which are sold in Hong Kong. Photo by Xinhua/Shutterstock

Nemo’s Garden, Italy

Nemo’s Garden in Noli, Italy is an underwater garden located at a depth of 6 to 10 meters. It is made up of six plastic biospheres measuring two meters in diameter and uses a hydroponics method to grow basil plants. The garden is designed to have minimal impact on local marine life and requires no source of energy other than the sun. Photo by Vittoria Lorenzetti/Parallelozero

Herbs growing in Project Nemo’s underwater biospheres, anchored to the seabed. The project began in 2012 and is now home to over 300 plants grown with an automated hydroponic system. The main herb grown is basil, but experiments are also being carried out with mint and licorice. Photo by Alessandro Rota/Getty Images

Upward Farms, United States

Ascending farms uses modern vertical farming techniques in conjunction with aquaponics, growing crops in a complete ecosystem. Fish swim directly under these plants, which absorb nutrients from fish waste. Plants filter water as they grow, reducing water consumption by 95%. The crops and seafood produced here are exported around the world. Photo by Upward Farms

More pictures of Scientific orientation:

Circle Food & Energy Solutions, Italy

The Circle Food and Energy Solutions is a farm on the outskirts of Rome. Here, with their vertical aquaponic systems housed in tents in the Italian countryside, this small business is able to grow a variety of edible crops without impacting the environment. Aquaponics is a method of growing plants in water, using the waste produced by fish and small sea creatures. Plants can extract nutrients from this waste and, in turn, can purify the water, so it’s a system with almost no waste. Photo by Vittoria Lorenzetti/Parallelozero

The aquaponic system allows the cultivation of young shoots and aromatic herbs. The system is constructed in such a way that the water flows downward from the top, thus transporting the nutrients to the plants. The plants themselves then purify the water and release it into the containers below. Photo by Vittoria Lorenzetti/Parallelozero

From box to plate, UK

Sebastien Sainsbury, CEO of Crate to Plate, is pictured inside the company’s urban farm near Elephant and Castle, London, UK. Housed in two shipping containers, the company uses hydroponic technology and nutrient-rich water to grow greens vertically in urban environments year-round. Photo by PinPep/Shutterstock

Crate to Plate urban farm near Elephant and Castle, London, UK. Photo by PinPep/Shutterstock

Strawberries from Sofia, Italy

Le fragole di Sofia (Strawberries from Sofia), in Crespino, Italy, grows and sells its own strawberries which have been grown using a soilless method in a specially constructed greenhouse. Sofia Michieli started growing strawberries on her parents’ farm and has since won awards for her innovation. Photo by Vittoria Lorenzetti/Parallelozero

A ferti-irrigation system delivers nutrient-rich water drops onto the growing medium. This type of system makes it possible to use only the water necessary for the plants and to avoid excessive irrigation (and therefore waste). Photo by Vittoria Lorenzetti/Parallelozero

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