by – Mohan Bajikar, Nikhilesh Bhowmick & Prof. Chander Saberwal
Mohan Bajikar is a Belagavi based Agriculture Futurologist living in Delhi. His firm Agrihouse India International Pvt Ltd has an MoU with Gogte Institute of Technology Belagavi for technical consultancy and service of the aeroponic laboratory set up in UAS Dharwad.
Humanity has experienced several changes in the course of history: revolutions in science, revolutions in industrial production as well as numerous political revolutions. However, it is the revolution in agriculture that lies at the core of all human progress. For no matter how much we may move ahead in time, basic human needs i.e. food, feed, fiber and fuel, remain unchanged. The forth coming decades pose multiple challenges of global food security, bio-energy supply, drastic climatic change, water shortages and sustained economic growth. Unarguably, the demand for food will continue to grow. Food production must more than double itself in the next forty years.
Burgeoning population and food security:
The world population is estimated to reach from the current 7.8 billion to 10 billion by 2050 with two thirds of the people living in urban areas. This unprecedented demographic growth predicts creation of mega cities worldwide. The pressure of providing every necessity to its inhabitants then – including reliable health care, quality education, decent housing, food, water, energy, and safe travel cannot be undermined. Consequently the economic, social and psychological challenges for the burgeoning population worldwide would be near insurmountable. By 2028, India’s population is projected to surpass that of China. The inconvenient truth is that out of the 680 million hungry people globally, India is a home to the largest number, with over 200 million Indians facing the harrowing problem of food insecurity. As humans we know that hunger and peace are incompatible partners.
Climate change and dearth of arable land:
Climate change has been wreaking havoc on agriculture and particularly in India coping mechanisms have failed. The world’s largest producer of sugarcane – India, saw its production falling down to 54% in 2019-20 with only 279 sugar mills across the country crushing cane as against 418 in the same period last year. Major crop yields which make the staple food of Indian people are likely to plunge down by 9% by 2039 and a gloomy 25% by 2070. Whereas agriculture constitutes 20% of India’s GDP, rising temperatures leave issues of food security on levels of despondency, in the long run. Environmental and human factors have had their impact on arable land. In an ambitious move, India’s Ministry of Environment has announced to convert 50 lakh hectares of degraded land to a fertile one by 2030.
The perils of water scarcity:
Nearly one billion people across the globe lack access to clean and safe water and the number will more than double in the coming decade. Long serpentine queues of people waiting to collect water from supply points abound throughout India. A home to one fifth of the world’s population, India has only 4% of the world’s fresh water resources. With 62% of the country’s irrigation happening through ground water resources, the water table is declining alarmingly. Government data warns that the average per capita water availability in India will fall down by 43% by 2050 unless radical measures are taken to control the factors that threaten this perilous fate.
Vertical farming – The way ahead: Vertical-farming is the buzz word in agriculture technology today and although it may sound like a science fiction, vertical farming consists of growing food in vertical stacks under controlled environmental conditions, using soil-less techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics. A single building that houses a vertical farm can yield 390 times higher food per square foot while using 95% less water and zero pesticides. Above all, the food is 100% organic. Dr Dickson Despommier, the Father of Vertical Farming and professor emeritus Columbia University says that “if we could engineer the vertical farming approach to food production, then no crops would ever fail due to severe weather events (floods, droughts, hurricanes, etc.). Currently there are many vertical farms in USA, Europe, Japan and China while some of the most robust ones are underway in the Middle East. Says Despommier, “if vertical farming in urban centers becomes the norm, one anticipated long-term benefit would be the gradual repair of many of the world’s damaged ecosystems.” Despommier in his research article for Agrihouse India International Pvt. Ltd. mentions that there is a good reason to believe that a significant amount of energy to run a vertical farm can come from organic waste such as methane. He also states that vertical farms will be engineered to take in contaminated water and restore it to near drinking water using bioremediation and other technologies yet to be fully developed. The byproducts of burning methane – CO2, heat and water can be added into the closed loop atmosphere of the vertical farm for fostering optimal plant growth. “Any water source that emerges from the vertical farm should be drinkable, thus completely recycling it back into the community that brought it to the farm to begin with.”
Agrihouse India Ltd. set up the country’s first aeroponic laboratory in University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad in 2016. In India’s first ever World Conference on Vertical Farming organized by Agrihouse India, in Bangalore in 2015, Dr Richard Stoner, Father of American Aeroponics said in his keynote address, that an urban vertical farm can generate a profit of 57% while providing safest and healthiest food to its consumers. Stoner has been the principal scientist for developing a high performance aeroponic system for NASA for orbital space shuttle and also earth. NASA endorsed that Stoner’s aeroponic system could reduce use of water by 98%, fertilizer by 60% and pesticide by 100%. The system can be used for growing anything from leafy greens to strawberries and cucumbers to root crops. Stoner’s technology is widely used in commercial farms in USA, Canada, Vietnam and Europe.
Setting up of vertical farms in India will help in mending damaged ecology, creating food security and generating employment. Most importantly it will save India’s farmer from resorting to extreme steps due to unpredictable climatic ravages. Let us all join in praying “Annadaata Sukhi Bhava.”
About the authors:
Mohan Bajikar is an Agriculture Futurologist and the first to bring several agriculture technologies to India. He is an alumnus of University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad and has sought training in land reforms, pheromons and aeroponics from different parts of the world.
Nikhilesh Bhowmick is the Director Finance and Chief Administrator at Agrihouse India Ltd.
Prof. Chander Sabharwal is a Senior Professor in Rural Marketing, Director Agrihouse and Managing Director at Crop Health Products Ltd.