Welcome to our amazing podcast - In The Weeds! In our very first episode, Just Vertical founders Kevin and Connor will be discussing something near and dear to our hearts - hydroponics.
Welcome to In the Weeds, a podcast dedicated to discussing everything to do with food sustainability in urban agriculture, indoor growing, food insecurity, resource consumption and anything else we think is exciting or important. I'm your host, Avery Parkinson.
This podcast is supported by Just Vertical, a Canadian hydroponics company that designs indoor gardens in order to provide people with fresh and healthy produce all year round.
This is our very first episode. So to kick things off, we're going to be discussing a topic that's very familiar to us here at Just Vertical... hydroponics. In particular, the social and environmental benefits of growing your own produce hydroponically. Many of you may have heard of hydroponics before - it's the practice of growing plants without soil, but by suspending their roots in solutions which contain all the nutrients they would otherwise get had they been grown in the ground. One of the reasons this model has grown in popularity over recent years is because of its ability to efficiently produce food in urban city centers where space isn't necessarily abundant. There are many different kinds of hydroponics configurations which lend themselves to different levels of production and space requirements. But overall, the technology has been touted as having numerous environmental benefits. Today, we're going to be delving into what exactly those benefits are by speaking with Just Vertical co-founders, Kevin and Connor.
A plant scientist and chemist by training, Kevin has previously worked with the Oxford County Health Department screening water for potential contaminants and as an educator with First Nations Cree in northern Quebec.
It's been said a lot that hydroponic systems would be able to grow produce while being more resource efficient. Can you explain what these resource efficiencies are and why they're able to be achieved?
Hydroponic systems that grow produce more efficiently are because of a few reasons. Technology that the equipment is made from or made to be used in as well as seasonality or the lack thereof. So what I mean by that is, we are dictated by a 24 hour day as humans but also, outside of agriculture, in this case, seasonality in indoor farming doesn't really compare isn’t one to one, in comparison to outdoor agriculture, where you have cold months and warm months, the change of the seasons fluctuations and temperatures. With indoor farming, you can have a rainy day and a sunny day, every day at the most optimal temperature for a plant to grow.
So the benefits of this technology is to be able to grow anything anywhere, any time regardless of the temperature and the climate outside, no matter where you are in the world. So the resource efficiencies that we talk about are fertilizer use, water use, energy use, pesticide use. Those things, in terms of quantifiable terms in our products, we use about 95% less water than traditional agriculture and 70% less energy. In comparison to traditional agriculture, we don't use any pesticides. We don't use any GMOs, of course, but they're not even in indoor agriculture. They're only in big agriculture outside.
The biggest thing for us is we dose this with the proper amount of fertilizer, nutrients, liquid nutrients into the water that plants exactly need without any of the compromise of runoff. And we use very concentrated salt or liquid base nutrients, about 20 milliliters every two weeks. And that's enough plant food that that really gets the plant optimally growing, on average. Even if you're growing a variety of different crops. Hydroponics might also be able to offset emissions produced by more intensive agricultural models.
Can you explain all the steps in the food production supply chain, we would see this relative decrease in emissions?
The way you think about it is you sit down at dinner and you have an array of food in front of you and your family. And we just come to terms you get it from the grocery store. It could be a kilometer away from your house, it could be 10, 20, 30 kilometers away from your house. Nonetheless, it's at the grocery store and that's where you get it and that's where a lot of consumers stop thinking about where it comes from. They know it comes from a farm - a farm somewhere. But on average, we're talking anywhere from two to 3000 kilometers. It could be taken from California to Mexico and put on a truck to be on your plate in the Greater Toronto Area, or somewhere else in Ontario or Canada for that matter.
So food does travel a long distance to get to your grocery store where then you have to go pick it up from the grocery store. So there's a lot of emissions and just in transporting food. Now in the growing of food, where it starts in big agricultural lands, say somewhere in California, Texas, about 85% of all kale in Ontario comes from a certain area of Texas in the wintertime. So there is a lot of hesitancy, but also a lot of reliance on certain areas to produce certain amounts of foods for other places on earth. What I just mentioned is the biggest thing in terms of CO2 equivalents that can be mitigated with growing food in your home or just growing locally. I always promote growing locally, lesser emissions produced, better for local economies, supporting local vendors and farmers. It also just tastes better. So nutrient degradation - so the amount of nutrients but also the amount of taste and flavour in your food degrades over time. And that happens over when it's harvested all the way to when it actually reaches your dinner plate. So local is always better. In terms of that side of things, emissions, and how we can decrease them is just by growing locally. Grow things that are in season. So that's the biggest upside of hydroponics is the ability to do anything to grow anything anywhere. In terms of intensive agriculture, we talk about a lot of fertilisers, runoff, a lot of water usage, there's a lot of things there that big agriculture does, that emits a lot of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
But in terms of our supply chain at Just Vertical, we source the seeds from Canada, and the US. And they are then used in our local premade peat moss plugs and soil plugs. And then they are just planted right into your system. You grow under a reading right in your kitchen or your bedroom or wherever you choose to place your Aeva or your Eve. And then you pick what you want and let the rest keep growing.
So the other side of things in terms of emissions is the lack of food waste. Food waste at the consumer level in North America, about 1/3 occurs at that level. So that's a lot of food waste that happens at the consumer level. And that's over buying something. If that's over cooking something and leaving the fridge it goes slimy. It goes moldy or whatever it may be. So not that that's a big thing for our system. It's the ability to preserve food longer, where you don't necessarily need that whole bunch of cilantro during your tacos and let it go to waste.
These benefits in large part affect the environment as a whole. Can you explain some of the benefits individual consumers and families would experience as a result of using hydroponics?
Though the things that we grow right now - at least one of the pitfalls of hydroponics it doesn't grow calorically dense foods, things. It's great to grow lettuce. It's great to grow herbs, but you can't just live on those things. You need calorically dense foods to be able to survive, protein based foods to be able to survive, or at least live a healthy diet and a healthy life. So those are some of the pitfalls. In terms of the benefits of hydroponics, especially think about growing strawberries, fresh strawberries in January in Canada, the amount for one having a good quality strawberry in Canada in January, is far in between. It's very tough to come by strawberries and they are not very tasty. They don't look very good when you get them from the grocery store during that time. So the cost benefit is growing high value crops during off seasons. And that's the one benefit of growing cilantro - and we talked about food miles but a lot of cilantro is either grown in greenhouses or comes from places in Central and South America to get to our grocery stores. So it's the environmental benefit and the health benefits. We don't use any pesticides. That's one big benefit where you know anything that's grown in your Aeva and Eve at home. It isn't sprayed with any pesticide. It's locally grown using organic based practises.
And then the costs of growing food. You can do about eight to 10 pounds of food a month depending on what you're growing. You can offset some of your grocery bill and also provide a nice way of pre-starting your garden during the winter months for your outdoor garden. As well as a lot of people use it for education tools for kids, as a biology project, as a greenhouse project in their home. And then also the tangible benefits in terms of actually saving your wallet from purchasing food during certain times of the year.
Are there any weaknesses in hydroponics technologies, which if strengthened would be able to open up additional benefits for consumers? And if so, what are these technical advances that need to happen?
The biggest thing, then, is that we're talking more about commercial indoor agriculture. The two biggest pitfalls on what you can grow, I guess there's three ways you can grow profitably is the question. So if you have a 10,000, square foot indoor farm, how do I get my money back? What's my payback period? What's my ROI on if I invest into these farms? When do I start getting money back in my own pocket after so much going out, so choosing the type of crop that's got to be profitable for your business is one thing, and it's very tough to come by, because of a lot of hard operational costs. The two main ones are labour, and electricity. There's a lot of innovation moving forward, there's a lot of different pieces of equipment - IoT AI, machine vision, drones, you name it. It's going to help reduce these costs. Controlling the environment in a room for optimising the air temperature and humidity, to robots, harvesting food, or robots seeding the plants and transplanting them to the systems. So those are the two big things in terms of indoor agriculture right now that really don't promote a large barrier to entry because of the high capital cost, but also a large barrier to be profitable down the road. So that's where we need to have advances in technology to really get us there. Moving forward, and then, of course, research relating to growing a more diverse array and variety of crops that everyone can enjoy rather than just the main leafy greens in herbes that you traditionally see.
Are there any instances in which the positive social impacts of hydroponics have also been seen on a community level?
Not yet. To be honest with you, I've seen implementation of technologies in Indigenous communities, remote communities, urban communities, where you see the initial positive impact, but it's yet to be seen, even if it's remediated some of the need for it. The question is, what about on the financial side? So it's one thing to implement and make sure they are their own local food champions and adopt the technology. That's the first thing but the second thing that a lot of hurdles go through is, okay, this is great. It's growing food for this community. It's very remote. But what are the operational costs? This winter, we'll be able to pay this off, and to be able to profit from it. And if we're talking about a 10 year payback period, we're still not there because of the other pitfalls of the technology that's put in there that costs a lot of money that also needs to be replaced or serviced over time. That doesn't really allow the full breadth of the positive impact. We're on our way, I should say, and I've seen many different scenarios, but we're definitely not there yet where it's full of positive success, at least in my opinion.
And what advice, if any, do you have for people who are considering using hydroponics?
What I would suggest to people is just do the research and educate yourself on it. You know, you don’t have to trust anyone's word for it. Go do that research on your own. Find out those answers from credited sources, and to make sure you form your own educated opinion on whatever aspect of agriculture generally speaking, indoor or outdoor. Make sure you have the full breadth of knowledge and education behind making those decisions. A lot of people have misconceptions or ideas for GMOs, organic farming, or fertilisers and big things, climate change related things that could affect a lot of aspects of our life now, which do affect a lot of aspects of our life now, but also moving forward. So I would suggest to them just really go out on their own and do their own research and make sure they're informed where they should be.
That was Kevin, one of the founders of Just Vertical. Next we spoke with his co-founder Connor. Connor has worked in the nonprofit sector as well as tackling sustainability and innovation challenges in the agricultural industry. Throughout his career, Connor was recognized for his work as a clean 50 emerging leader and a top 30 under 30 sustainability and human rights leader.
It's often been said that hydroponic systems translate into cost savings in the long term, can you give a breakdown of where these cost savings come in?
I mean, I'm talking as somebody who lives in downtown Toronto and grows my own food hydroponically at home. So you know, starting just at the personal level, you end up saving money over what you're spending at the retail store, you know, I like my food fresh I like going to farmers markets and being able to grow it up at home for kind of cents on the dollar compared to what I would spend at the store. And then really larger picture, bigger picture talking as well. It provides great savings for the environment, for the planet. You know, we grow all our own produce hydroponically using 95%, less water and no pesticides compared to traditional agriculture. So it's great for you as a person and great for the planet.
Do you think the way in which hydroponic systems are marketed influences the way consumers interact with them and integrate them into their lives? If so, how?
Yeah, I think when we talk about hydroponics, a lot of people are intimidated. They think about, you know, the pipes, the tubes that grow in lights. And you know, that can be scary if you're not a DIY or not a hobbyist. So what we're trying to do and where I think this hydroponics is going in the future is, it's really going to become more and more integrated into people's lives. Where we're developing systems like ours, where it's really complimentary, and anybody can do it. You know, I know people who went from saying, you know, they were killing cactuses to using modern hydroponic systems at home and growing their own food flawlessly so I think it's just getting easier and it is getting cooler and looks good. Now it's not just a gadget.
What are additional benefits you think hydroponic systems have the potential to deliver but are not currently as well known or as widespread? What needs to happen to make those Aforementioned benefits, more common parts of the user experience?
One benefit that a lot of people don't really think about with hydroponics or a lot of people don't know about is the state of soil in the world. Hydroponics grows using just water, so there's no soil involved. And coming from an agricultural background myself, I love soil, but unfortunately around the world, we're running out of good topsoil, it's going to become quite a big problem. So hydroponics not using that, being able to help that problem of topsoil erosion or degradation is, is huge. And you know, I wish more people knew about that and it inspires them to start growing their own food hydroponically.
What are the main barriers preventing people from making hydroponics a part of their lives?
Yeah, I mean, the first thing is just knowledge. It still is, you know, hydroponics as a practice is old. But using hydroponics on a personal level is relatively new. And a lot of people, when I talk to them about it, just aren't aware that it exists. They don't know what's possible, and it goes back them think of some crazy future idea. So that's definitely one. And then the second is the cost. You know, it still can be expensive to get into. There is that barrier to entry of those upfront costs that at this point, it's not affordable for everyone. I think in the future, that's going to change. But those would be the two big ones would be knowledge and cost.
If you were to try to convince someone why hydroponics has so much potential that technology, what would be the foremost points that you would touch on?
Yeah, I always like to start just by showing them a picture of it. You know, we've got this sci-fi idea that at some point in the future, people will be able to grow food on the 20th floor of a skyscraper downtown. That's not sci-fi. That's today, you know, I'm sitting at a 20th floor condo surrounded by plants, like we really are kind of in the future of food where it's incredibly easy for anybody to do. And it looks great. It's really anybody can become a farmer at home, at the office, in the kitchen. It's just, you know, this really cool vision for the future is starting to materialise and people can be a part of that.
By that same token, is there a wrong way of trying to convince others to, you know, use, invest or adopt hydroponics?
Whenever somebody gets passionate about a subject, they like to talk about it like it's the be all and end all. And, you know, a lot of people are really into hydroponics. They love it because it is a great solution for things like food security or soil degradation that we talked about. But sometimes they make the mistake of thinking it's the only solution. At the end of the day, there's going to be a whole host of things we're going to need to do to continue to feed the world and to continue to drive sustainability forward. You know, hydroponics is just one of those things. I love hydroponics, there’s also organic farming and conventional farming. All of it is part of our food future. So, you know, it's important, we all work together as people in the food movement to to build a better world instead of pitting ourselves against one another.
Do you think there might be instances in the future of communities being able to reap the benefits of hydroponic systems? And how would this look?
For sure, I think just like we have community gardens now, I think we're going to see that happening. And you know, as these cities continue to grow, there's new condos going up every day around me here. I think we're gonna start to see these community gardens appearing as amenities and condos, for example, where, you know, you can grow your own lettuce downstairs, and how cool would that be to have a community garden there instead of, you know, that third party room that gets used once a year? I think we're gonna start to see people championing these ideas and asking for this, you know, being able to go down and pick your own lettuce is super cool or pick your own lettuce salad bar would be awesome. I see it pop up as a community inspired thing, not just at an individual level.
We hope you enjoyed this episode of our podcast. If you're interested in learning more about Just Vertical and our work, follow us @justvertical on Twitter, just.vertical on Instagram or visit our website www.justvertical.com. Stay tuned for our next episode where we'll be discussing more about urban agriculture, food sustainability, or really anything else important or exciting that we feel like talking about