The industrial revolution paved the way for agricultural methods that made production faster in ways that had previously not been possible. Conventional farming methods were accelerated using fossil fuels, and alluvial lands were discovered and used to set up spaces for growing crops at maximum efficiency.

Industrial agriculture kept on innovating and creating new economic possibilities, with biological research leading to great discoveries in crop genetics. These discoveries led to the creation of disease-resistant crop breeds that would later maximize yields and feed more people.

Due to the world’s dependence on soil, over-farming agricutural lands over the years has led to rising fertilizer usage and the need to protect plants from weeds, pests and other elements during farming.

To address these needs, agrichemicals were produced and marketed to farmers as critical components. In North America, agrichemicals are a large overhead cost farmers incur in their farm operations. These rising costs, coupled with the effects of climate change and drought, negatively impact industrial agriculture—an industry that today is faced by more challenges than ever before.

The challenges facing soil-based agriculture have led to the invention of soilless agriculture, a.k.a. hydroponics, a method of growing crops without the use of soil. In soilless agriculture, crops are grown in nutrient solutions. This is a popular way to grow plants indoors that reduces the risk of crops being exposed to pests and harsh weather conditions.

Whether they are grown using soilless or soil methods, all plants require essential nutrients to grow, reproduce and perform other critical activities. Water, for instance, is a critical factor in the growth process, and nutrients, light and air are also major components. In both methods, crops require a growing medium to anchor their roots and gain physical consistency.

It is the soil, or other type of grow media, which provides the nutrients crops absorb via their root system. Grow mediums also help dissolve gases and facilitate absorption of nutrients. Let’s take a closer look at each of these gardening methods.

Soil-based Agriculture

Crops are often grown in soil, either in containers or out in the field. Containers are used for growing crops that are mainly for export, while field cultivation involves the preparation of agricultural lands and undertaking modifications, such as the cultivation of beds to ease crop management.

In soil-based agriculture, different types of soils are used to grow different crops. For instance, root crops grow better in fine soils because such soils allow for better root growth.

In ancient times, fertilizers were not applied to soil crops. Today, limited agricultural space has made it difficult for people to rotate crops, so growing spaces get fully rehabilitated. To increase yields, farmers must now use agrochemicals on agricultural fields to enhance soil fertility so crops get the nutrients they need to grow.

Soilless Agriculture

Soilless agriculture is a method of growing crops in mineral solutions packed with nutrients. The composition of mineral solutions depends on the crop under cultivation. Ideally, mineral solutions contain essential cations and anions, namely magnesium, calcium, potassium, sulfates and nitrates.

Leading types of soilless solutions are medium culture and solution culture. These are further subdivided into categories, such as continuous flow solution, static solution and aeroponics for solution cultures, and gravel and sand culture for medium cultures. Other types of soilless medium cultures include coco coir, stonewool and expanded clay pebbles.

Advantages of Soilless Agriculture

  • Soilless agriculture does not require the use of toxic chemicals. Unlike soil-based agriculture, where farmers have to use fertilizers to increase crop yield and spray pesticides to keep weeds and pests away, crops are somewhat protected from pests and weeds.
  • Soilless agriculture is ideal in urban areas where space is too limited for soil-based gardens.
  • Nutrient and growing media loss is significantly reduced with soilless cultivation because the nutrient requirements for crops are determined in advance.
  • Soilless cultivation is believed to cause less pollution.
  • Compared to soil cultivation, the yields from soilless cultivation are significantly higher as a result of intensive practices and the possibilities of continuous, year-round production.

Disadvantages of Soilless Agriculture

  • Crops cultivated using this approach are more prone to pathogen attacks as a result of high moisture levels.
  • Crops are also more susceptible to rapid death as a result of their lower buffering capacity.

The Great Debate Verdict

When it comes to indoor gardening, soilless cultivation has several benefits over soil-based cultivation. To begin with, soilless cultivation can be conducted within controlled environments virtually anywhere because it does not rely on land fertility. It also addresses numerous concerns conventional agriculture poses. Here are the major benefits soilless cultivation has over soil-based cultivation:

Soilless cultivation is not affected by environmental changes – One of the major challenges soil-based agriculture poses is its vulnerability to environmental changes such as floods, wind, drought and climate change. These changes can lead to huge losses for farmers. With soilless agriculture, plants are cultivated indoors, where they are protected against potential destructive environmental elements. Crop yields are also stable and much higher due to the use of artificial lighting, making it possible to grow year-round.

Soilless cultivation conserves water – In soil-based agriculture, crops absorb water from the ground. In fact, it is believed that 80% of fresh water in the United States is used in agriculture, and in many cases, the water in the ground does not benefit the plants directly—a lot of it goes to waste. With the looming water shortage, soilless cultivation is the way to go, as it is a method of agriculture that monitors and controls the amount of water crops consume and use.

Soilless cultivation conserves land – Many countries are running short on agricultural land at the same time the world’s demand for food is rapidly increasing. Soilless cultivation addresses the problem of dwindling farmlands, as plant roots do not need to stretch much to reach nutrients; the nutrients they need are supplied in the nutrient formula.

Soilless cultivation requires less pesticides, so runoff pollution is minimized – In the US, agrochemicals are the leading causes of water quality issues. Agrochemicals, like pesticides, are known to contaminate drinking water and watersheds. Most farmers who use soilless cultivation require little-to-no pesticides or herbicides, or can get by using minimal amounts of organic options. Crops grown in protected environments are fed optimally and experience less stress. This makes them better able to resist the pests that get into greenhouses. Furthermore, weeds are not a problem in soilless cultivation since they require soil to grow.

Whether you are gardening in soil or hydroponics, growing your own crops is a rewarding experience, especially in the face of rising produce costs and world populations, and the scarcity of farmable lands.