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Hydroponic Growing Mission for India: Fighting Hunger, Boosting Economy

  • Written by  By Amy Zuckerman
  • Video
Hydroponic systems can feed the poor in India and around the world more effectively than conventional growing methods. Hydroponic systems can feed the poor in India and around the world more effectively than conventional growing methods.

On a crisp morning, Tapan Adhikari, Ph.D., carefully measures clear fluid from a large container, then drips it slowly into a beaker at a lab at the University of Massachusetts. The soil scientist is roughly 8,000 miles from his office at the India Institute of Soil Science in Bhopal, India, and today he is working in a temporary laboratory in a basement in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he has partnered on a collaborative program with the university.

A stipend from the Indian government was just enough to pay Adhikari’s travel expenses plus room and board for three months at UMass, where he has learned nanotechnology techniques that can be applied to the development of inorganic fertilizer, which can be used in both traditional soil and hydroponic growth environments. The advantage of nanotechnology methods is that they require very small amounts of elements (for the same effect as larger quantities), which makes them very inexpensive to use.

Hydroponics is the basis for many research experiments into means of feeding this country’s millions of starving citizens. At the same time, say both men, hydroponic farming is boosting India’s blooming floriculture industry, which provides one of the country’s key exports.

Halfway across the globe, in west-central India, Praveen Sharma checks on a colorful array of red rose bushes that fill hydroponic greenhouses. The flowers will be clipped at just the right time to preserve them and ship them to markets in Japan, Kenya, and Holland (for distribution throughout Europe), he explains. Besides being a grower, Sharma is the owner of Flora Consult,  a consulting business that helps farmers worldwide set up their own hydroponic farms. Flora Consult will help secure funding for a hydroponic farm, select greenhouse and other equipment, and train farmers and workers to grow, pack, and ship produce. 

A Starving Nation

Hydroponic greenhouses dedicated to growing flowers cover only about 1,000 out of India’s 600 million acres, and only an estimated 140 acres are dedicated to growing vegetables, according to Sharma. But he and Adhikari illustrate, from nearly opposite ends of the globe, the far-reaching commitment of India to hydroponic growing. Although the amount of acreage devoted to hydroponics-based crop cultivation is low, hydroponic growing methods are playing a key role in this emerging economy. Hydroponics is the basis for many research experiments into means of feeding this country’s millions of starving citizens. At the same time, say both men, hydroponic farming is boosting India’s blooming floriculture industry, which provides one of the country’s key exports.

As someone who has traveled across India for his research, Adhikari, 43, is witness to both applications. His concern is about finding ways to feed a starving nation, but he also appreciates the power that flower exports have in funding the country’s economy.

During his many years as a student and now as a research scientist, he has witnessed plenty of starvation. The issue, he says, is not so much a lack of water or good growing soil as an overabundance of mouths to feed.

His idea was that virtually anything could be used to contain the growing territory and virtually any growing medium would provide a base for hydroponic plant growth as long as the medium did not pack tightly around the plant’s roots and was able to retain moisture.  

About 50 percent of India—roughly 300 million acres—could be cultivated under the right circumstances. Historically, says Adhikari, the government has focused its agricultural efforts on improving crop yields in the rich, alluvial soil that lines the great Indian rivers, the Ghanges and Yamuna that crisscross north and central India, and the Kaberi River in the south. Less attention has been given to improving the sandy, acidic soil located in the hilly areas of the north country, or the damaged soil of the south in Kerala State, where the brackish water of the Arabian Sea has invaded the land.

 “We have a billion people now, and in the next five years India will cross to the 1.5 billion mark,” says Adhikari. “At least 20 percent of the Indian population is starving. Village people all over India suffer the most. In the cities, they have jobs and can earn money.”

Following the government’s lead, Adhikari has spotlighted alluvial soil in his research, working assiduously with a 10-person team from his soil science institute on a new way of producing more food in alluvial soil using improved fertilizers. The aim is to help farmers gain more profit than they would with conventional fertilizer.

Although the research was designed with conventional agriculture in mind (testing is conducted on corn plants), Adhikari says all his fundamental research on plant growth is conducted under controlled conditions in hydroponic greenhouses. Working on actual plants is slated further down the research trail, in an estimated five years, when the fertilizer formula will be ready for mass manufacture and distribution.

During his time in the United States, Adhikari has worked 10- to 12-hour days in a light-filled basement lab outfitted with the latest in equipment. He has had access to all required chemicals, as well as a built-in Indian expatriate community of research scientists and academics in the soil and food areas.

On the technology front, the government’s plan called for use of nanosensors and nanotech-based smart delivery systems to ensure that natural resources such as water and nutrients are used efficiently in agriculture.  

Adhikari explains that his fertilizer formula supplies the essential nutrients required to promote rapid plant growth. These include zinc sulfate, calcium, magnesium, iron, and others. Common elements in inorganic fertilizers include superphosphate, urea, muriate of potash, and zinc sulfate, to name a few.

Although not organic, chemical fertilizers are not dangerous in soil at lower doses, according to Adhikari. The last thing he or any research scientist wants, he adds, is to damage soil and plants with toxic chemicals. Of particular concern, he says, is the leaching of ions like nitrates and phosphates into the groundwater. 

Though confined to the lab while in Massachusetts, Adhikari also has spent considerable time on outdoor research, sweating in fields in Israel, where the government provided him with a fellowship to study soil, water, and plants for his postgraduate work in 1999 and 2000. There he worked with renowned soil expert N. I. Parker, who developed the Geo-Chem Model to regulate the concentration of ions in soil solutions. Adhikari took this knowledge back to India, where he worked with two other scientists at his institute on heavy metals used to complete a plant life cycle.

Adhikari also traveled throughout central, western, and South India, working with farmers as part of national projects designed to improve “black soil,” which is based on a granite-type of rock common in these parts of India. He worked with farmers on applying micronutrients such as zinc, copper, manganese, boron, and others, which are common nutrients to help the plant complete its life cycle and boost crop yields, he says.

Prior to his work on nanotechnology particles, Adhikari worked on finding the best conventional doses of nutrients in the field. “What we did became common practice,” he reports. “They get two times more crop yield than before.”

The same nutrients can be applied to hydroponic farms, says Adhikari. The only difference, he explains, is that they are applied directly to water, not to soil. The research he is doing right now will help determine the exact amounts to be used in either growing medium.

Given the world demand for cut flowers and increases in demand from the world marketplace, the Indian government supports growth of its floriculture industry through tax benefits.

Most hydroponic farms in India are located in the countryside, sometimes in dry areas where water is collected from rain-fed cisterns. Calling conditions in many parts of India “very primitive,” Adhikari says there is little irrigation available today, though this has begun to change as the government works to channel water from the major rivers. Once channeled to a hydroponic farm, the water would require purification. Most farms have purification systems on-site, he explains.

The regions of the country where hydroponics already has taken hold, he says, include Punjab, West Bengal, Andhra Pradeh, Delhi, and Rajastham.

Hydro Takes Hold

The practice of hydroponics arrived in India in 1946, when the government of Bengal started an experimental farm at Kalimpong in the Darjeeling District, according to an overview of the history of hydroponics in India published on the Indianetzone Web site. The farm’s main purpose was to promote hydroponics, and the issue at the time was the cost of the apparatus required to grow vegetables. To help clear that particular hurdle, the government brought in James Sholto Douglas, a British researcher keen on developing hydroponic planting methods, whose experiments aimed to “strip hydroponics of its complicated devices and to present it to the people of India and the world as a cheap, easy way of growing vegetables without soil,” the publication reported.

The Web site Hydroponics at Home reports that Douglas, now famous for developing the Bengal System of hydroponics, utilized the Mittleider method of square-foot gardening based on grow boxes designed for intensive square-foot gardening. What was revolutionary at the time was his use of rock chips and rock dust as a growing material instead of soil, revealing the ability to grow vegetables in extremely harsh environments.

According to Hydroponics at Home, Douglas constructed grow boxes from old packing crates and made rock chips and dust out of smashed rocks from the local hills. He later built these boxes, or hydroponicums, out of other materials, such as mud plaster and old, unused metal containers, to prove that the container material did not matter. His idea was that virtually anything could be used to contain the growing territory and virtually any growing medium would provide a base for hydroponic plant growth as long as the medium did not pack tightly around the plant’s roots and was able to retain moisture.

Douglas created one of the first modern hydroponic farms in the world, and his ground-breaking experiments live today both in rooftop gardens across India, and in the increasing number of farms taking hold in the Indian countryside. His approaches are applicable to the home hobbyist and serious farmer alike, Adhikari explains.

For at least two decades, the Indian government has strenuously backed any form of agricultural research that will improve plant yields to feed people. Adhikari, despite an interest in general chemistry, was motivated by a government scholarship to pursue a degree in soil chemistry.

In May 2008, according to news reports, the Indian government announced a major, five-year plan to promote and financially back nanotechnology applications designed to boost agricultural productivity in the country. Besides funding research in nanotech approaches to creating a more potent and cost-effective type of organic fertilizer, for example, the government also has been encouraging research in biotechnology and bioinformatics.

On the technology front, the government’s plan called for use of nanosensors and nanotech-based smart delivery systems to ensure that natural resources such as water and nutrients are used efficiently in agriculture. Nano-barcodes and nanoprocessing were also cited as means to help monitor the quality of agricultural produce.

One sure way to see if a government initiative has translated into reality is to check on whether industry is adopting the approach. Sure enough, since the government incentive was announced, chemical companies such as Tata Chemicals, based in Mumbai, have been touting their nanotechnology-based fertilizers. The products aim to diminish the amount of fertilizer required per acre yet provide greater crop yields.

According to the company’s chief financial officer, P. K. Ghose, their first investments in nanotechnology practices, including cell engineering, will be used for research and development, with manufacturing coming at a later stage. Company officials report that the convergence of nanotechnology, information technology, and biotechnology have the potential for creating a “whole new world of agriculture.”

Coming Up Roses

Praveen Sharma is such a busy man these days—shuttling between greenhouses, sorting flowers for shipments, and even jetting to visit new customers in Kenya who are setting up their first hydroponic flower farms—that he maintains two cell phones and two land lines and is working close to midnight many evenings to meet the demand for his cut flowers and consulting services. Sharma reports that sales of cut flowers are booming, with one of the biggest importers of his flowers being Japan. Most in demand are roses.

The Dutch are also big importers of his roses, but for shipment throughout Europe. According to government export reports, Indian flower growers also export their products to Russian and the Middle East. Most Flora Consult clients are in India, but Sharma is working in Kenya to create greenhouses that cover about 40 acres. Again, the crop is roses, he says.  

More than 50 percent of  India’s flower farms are based in southern zones such as Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. Other regions big on bloomers include West Bengal, Maharashtra (Sharma’s zone), and Rajasthan. Although roses are a favorite export flower, Indian growers are also splashing color worldwide with exports of traditional flowers such as marigolds, jasmine, asters, gladiolus, and others.

Given the world demand for cut flowers and increases in demand from the world marketplace, the Indian government supports growth of its floriculture industry through tax benefits. For example, new exporters of flowers enjoy so-called income tax holidays and are exempt from certain duties. Also, the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), which is responsible for export promotion and development of floriculture in India, grants subsidies for establishing cold storage, precooling units, refrigerated vans and greenhouses, and air freight for exports.

No Time To Lose

Recently, Adhikari returned to Bhopal, but he says he won’t be there for long. His work was so favorably received at UMass and in such urgent need to be applied in farming worldwide that his American department chair is trying to arrange for him to return this spring, Adhikari says.

Sharma, in the meantime, says he is trying to find the least expensive means of shipping cut flowers from Kenya to Amsterdam and wants some advice; queries go out to freight forwarders and customs brokers around the world with information pending.

The story of how Indian researchers and hydroponic farmers are expanding their economy and providing new knowledge about ways to beat back hunger is a living story. When you have a hungry nation to feed, especially one as large and diverse as India, time and food is of the essence.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 18:35

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