The tomatoes we typically see in supermarkets this time of year are trucked in from Florida and beyond and bred to withstand the rigors of the journey to our plates. As products of industrial agriculture, they’re subpar by every measure. But, as Allison Aubrey reports for NPR, locally-grown, sustainably-produced, tasty tomatoes can now be found year-round even in cold winter regions of the country.
Some farmers have started to grow tomatoes in greenhouses using what’s known as hydroponics, where plants are grown in a nutrient solution as opposed to soil. “Everything that a tomato normally gets from the soil — including fertilizer and nutrients like calcium and iron — are instead being fed to these tomato plants directly through the hose,” i.e. the irrigation line, Aubrey explains. Paul Mock, a hydroponics farmer in West Virginia, compared it to a hospital IV line.
Up until recently, hydroponic tomatoes had been known to be as tasteless as conventionally grown varieties. But Mock, for one, has discovered that he can develop the flavor in his tomatoes by allowing them to ripen before harvesting. “If we were to pick a tomato green and allow it to ripen,” he said, “it would taste no better than a shipped tomato.” Aubrey adds, the “big advantage Mock has is that his customers are all nearby.”
The fact that hydroponic farming contributes to local food systems is just the first of the ways in which it scores for sustainability.
Only a 10th of the water used to grow conventional crops is required in hydroponic farming, wrote Glenn Collins for the New York Times last year, and yet its yields are 10 times greater. In a well-controlled hydroponic greenhouse environment, moreover, farmers are able to grow crops without the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
Not everyone, however, is sold on hydroponic farming. Acknowledging the fact that soil contains billions of organisms that contribute to the growth of plants, Ben Raskin of the Soil Association says that he suspects that “if you tried to survive purely on hydroponically grown food, you’d quickly find your body wasn’t getting everything it needs.” In addition, Raskin argues, the nutrients obtained by the plants from the water “have to come from somewhere. Whatever you add — nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, copper, boron — this stuff doesn’t just ‘appear.’ It has to be produced or mined. It’s the wrong approach in terms of sustainability.”
It would appear he has a point. In which case, one alternative might be aquaponics, which crosses aquaculture with hydroponics. Aquaponics, according to The Aquaponic Source, “is the cultivation of fish and plants together in a constructed, re-circulating ecosystem using natural bacterial cycles to convert fish wastes to plant nutrients.” In aquaponics, there is no “need to discard any water or solid waste or to add chemical fertilizers.” It sure sounds ideal.
Decades of developments in food production, storage and distribution have led us to expect to be able to buy fresh any food at any time of the year, at enormous expense to the environment as well as to the quality of the food grown. At least hydroponic farming addresses some of the issues, and apparently it can deliver a pretty flavorful tomato, but no one’s arguing that it’s the answer to all our problems.
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