September 26, 2023

Hydroponics, aquaponics or vertical farming – which works best for you?

Hydroponics, aquaponics and vertical farming are all becoming evermore common in food production – but what are the key benefits of each, and how do they work in principle? We’ve broken down all three, alongside any environmental footprints and how they fit into modern agriculture.

Written by
Tanveer Khan
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Breaking down different technologies in food production

As climate records continue to topple, the need to find sustainable and planet-friendly agricultural systems becomes ever more pressing. Hydroponics, aquaponics, and vertical farming tick both boxes, as well as offering faster growth rates and greater yields – they’re also becoming increasingly more common in food production. 

When considering which system to use, it’s important to weigh up the pros and cons of each. Consider factors such as energy costs and desired yield, as well as resource (both human and natural). We’ve weighed up their key components, as well as how they weigh up against one another and fit into 21st century agriculture.

What is hydroponics?

Hydroponics is a method of growing crops without soil. Instead, the system uses a nutrient-rich solution in place of soil to support plant growth.

Plants are either stood in some form of substrate within trays, which are periodically flooded with a nutrient solution. Otherwise, they are placed in a sloped gutter where a nutrient solution is passed over the roots. This method can produce a diverse range of high quality flowers, herbs and vegetables fast – and at a high yield.

What is aquaponics?

Aquaponics is another form of science which grows plants without soil. It combines both hydroponics and aquaculture – the breeding and raising of aquatic animals such as fish, crayfish, snails or prawns.

Aquaponics systems works similarly to hydroponic systems, with plants growing in a soilless, water-based environment. But, instead of adding essential nutrients to the water like hydroponics, waste from aquatic animals like fish is used for growing plants.

Fish waste essentially acts as a fertiliser for plants. The microbes in the water turn the fish waste into nitrates, which plants take in through roots as a source of nitrogen.

What is vertical farming?

Vertical farming involves growing crops indoors in vertically stacked trays (at IGS, we call these Growth Trays), rather than horizontally in a field or in glasshouses. It incorporates technology such as LED lighting, closed-loop water recycling and climate control to optimise crop growth.

At IGS, we use Growth Towers to regulate environmental factors such as lighting, water distribution, CO2 levels, and nutrient delivery. Our system also uses energy as efficiently as possible, minimising costs (even more so when paired with a renewable energy source). Each tower has its own microclimate, allowing for faster, more controlled production year-round, and the ability to grow multiple crops in one tower.

Vertical farming helps reduce reliance on imports, getting rid of food miles and strengthening local farming economies. Our Total Controlled Environment Agriculture (TCEA) system allows growers to produce the perfect crop, year in, year out, enhancing both quality and repeatability.

What's the difference between hydroponics and vertical farming? 

The differences vary depending on the technology. Both systems remove the need for soil to grow crops, while certain vertical farms use hydroponics within their systems.

Our tech solutions deliver nutrients to crops through water, whereas plants are grown in a coconut husk substrate. Water floods into the Growth Trays and drains away, while excess nutrients and water can both be recycled and reused – this helps reduce water consumption.

Growing crops in a substrate instead of soil allows us to maximise space, producing a diverse range of high-quality crops at a faster yield, combining hydroponics and vertical farming technology.

What’s the difference between hydroponics and aquaponics?

Although hydroponics and aquaponics share some similarities, they are also markedly different. Aquaponics uses fish, for a start. It also needs a support system to surround the roots, helping to foster beneficial microorganisms. Hydroponics systems, by contrast, are typically sterile and do not require additional growing mediums to support the plants or roots.

You’ve also got to weigh up the operating costs. Hydroponics systems require fertilisers throughout the growing season to maintain a nutrient solution. Aquaponics systems, on the other hand, cost more to run because of the increased oxygenation required to support aquatic life.

Combining hydroponics, aquaponics, vertical farming, and traditional agriculture

Combining some of these systems (or all four) can help improve yield, lower environmental footprint and increase profitability. Vertical farming allows for complete control over the growing environment, whilst simultaneously reducing water usage and eliminating the need for pesticides. This is crucial, particularly when considering the world's diminishing resources and the impacts of climate change.

At IGS, we believe that vertical farming shouldn’t replace traditional agricultural methods or greenhouse technologies – it should work alongside them. We can collaborate to maximise the benefits of each approach, working towards a more sustainable future for food production.

Is vertical farming environmentally friendly?

The short answer is – yes. Vertical farming uses less land and water, and can also help reduce food miles by locating farms closer to consumers.

Vertical farms also eliminate the need for pesticides and herbicides. Because of this – and by managing humidity levels – fungal diseases find it difficult to take hold. This results in a safer, healthier crop.

Perhaps the biggest challenge faced in the vertical farming industry is power consumption. In an IGS system, our patented power management technology helps reduce power usage without impacting on crops. Our systems can also be powered by renewable energy, which, when co-locating a vertical farm with a renewable energy source, can drastically reduce operating costs.

Controlled Environment Agriculture vs Total Controlled Environment Agriculture – what's the difference?

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) involves growing crops in controlled spaces (such as glasshouses) and adjusting the environment to match specific needs. It can control variables such as temperature and humidity, but these environments can often yield unpredictable and inconsistent results due to a lack of complete control over external factors (such as heat and light).

Total Controlled Environment Agriculture (TCEA) offers complete control over the growing environment. It creates a microclimate and, in turn, a more consistent and repeatable crop yield. At IGS, we use TCEA to help increase yields by 2-3 times when compared to traditional UK glasshouses. 

Our modular, scalable vertical farming technology empowers growers to meet customer demands and increase profit margins by ensuring a steady supply of nutritious, sustainable crops.

Want to understand how a vertical farm could work for your business? Get in touch with us today! 

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Thursday, April 25, 2024

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Read IGS’ Head of Science Tanveer Khan’s insight on growing tomato starter plants with vertical farming, covering everything from nutritional value to specific nuances between varieties.

Read IGS’ Head of Science Tanveer Khan’s insight on growing tomato starter plants with vertical farming, covering everything from nutritional value to specific nuances between varieties.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Growing strawberry runners with vertical farming – what the science tells us

Here's how we utilise the latest research to grow strawberry runners using vertical farming.

Here's how we utilise the latest research to grow strawberry runners using vertical farming.