Aeroponics systems as a local answer to global issues

 

In France, where I come from, you learn in the first year of highschool to manipulate and understand the Maslow Pyramid of human’s needs. What you discover, back then, is the already intuitively felt importance of food and water, placed among the “physiological needs”, at the bottom of the pyramid. I remember to have learned it, in the  studious classroom, learned it as a logical and simple information, to never come back to it. Today, studying global issues abroad, I experience and research the systemic challenges that one needs to tackle to answer climate change effects, depletion of natural resources and rapidly growing world population in a fast-mutating world. Water being a scarce resource yet forming the foundation of everyone’s Pyramid, we do realize easily the tension existing, and the responsibility accompanying it. The fact that this same water is at the core of vegetal growth and food production exacerbates the tension; a tension that the estimated 9 billion inhabitants of this earth by 2030 will only contribute to increase.

 

The conventional agricultural model does not seem, so far, to provide an appropriate answer: its water and cultivable area increase as we increase the desired production, impacting negatively biodiversity, natural resources and climate change. Concurrently, however, innovative agricultural practices are developed to meet the exigence of an environmentally, economically and socially effective farming system. In Châteauneuf-sur-Loire, in the “Centre” region of France, the company “Les Crudettes” develops since 2014 an automated greenhouse using pesticide-free aeroponics systems with the aim of growing vegetables 365 days a year, reduce carbon footprint, water consumption, and create attractive jobs and dynamism for the sector. The project, called “Cap Vert”, is a research experiment: it aims, later on, at redistributing aeroponics technologies and methods to local farmers in order to relocate the food production activity on the national territory. This project, far from being peculiar, is instead one of the multiple created in the world to create an alternative agricultural model. 

 

More than 15 ha of aeroponic greenhouse, 6 years, and 4 millions of euros invested (funded at 25% by the European Regional Development Fund) later, the project is still running, and has proved its relevance. Indeed, compared with traditional agriculture, aeroponics systems have a lot of advantages meeting the perspective of a sustainable world. Water consumption is one of them: the objective of the project is to reduce 95% of the water use for production and transformation, notably because of the nutritive fogging technique and recycling that is used to grow. The General Director of “Les Crudettes” Thierry Dubois, comparing farming models declared to the regional TV on April 7th, 2020,

“With the current techniques, one irrigate its salad in the field and more than 99% of the water used is not taken by the plant, losing itself in the soil. With our technology, we nurture the roots with a fog. The totality of the unused water is recovered and used again, without loss”.

 

 Allowing to constantly grow seeds no matter the season and climatic variations by dint of a high degree of control and automatization (pilot of temperature, humidity, infrared cameras checking plants energy consumption, fans, screens retaining heat and providing shade), the aeroponic system in Châteauneuf-sur-Loire halved the carbon footprint of the company usually forced to import products from Italy and Spain throughout the winter, 5 months in the year. No more difficulties due to the variation of quantity, supply breakdown, or phytosanitary product residuals. In fact, aeroponics systems are pesticide-free: having no contact with the soil, plants remain unreachable for the insect pests. 

 

In terms of sustainability, aeroponics offers thus a solid argument in terms of water use, seasonality and pesticide, offering a farming solution caring about the planet and people’s interests while growing products of an equivalent to superior quality, at a higher rate. Plus, the “Cap Vert” project meets the EU objectives of reducing by 50% the pesticide use by 2030 and focuses on sustainable farming within the plan “De la ferme à la fourchette”. Yet, soilless production was refused the grant of bio labels in 2018. 

 

The socio-economic impacts are also to be noted: it created more than 100 direct and indirect jobs, radiating as an attractive sector on the territory, as “Les Crudettes” involve themselves for good working conditions with a meaningful purpose. Starting with the goal to extend the high-tech greenhouse market on the regional and national area with a prospect of 50ha built per year, the company is not alone to undertake the path towards alternative farming model, in the region we count 40 ha of automatized greenhouses, using hydroponics as well as aeroponics. 

 

However, some drawbacks and limits have to be pointed out. Angelo Massacci, a researcher retired from the Italian National Research Council and specialist of aeroponics, at our interrogations about the sustainability of the system answered,

“It is definitely more efficient and sustainable than hydroponics, but it requires a deep and strong knowledge from technicians, while not every plant can be grown with, and a lot of energy is consumed”.

 

 There is also the eternal issue of the data use and misuse, as greenhouses are often fully automatized and subcontracted to specialized companies, such as ARIA, which regulate climate, irrigation and heat for “Les Crudettes”. Is the collected data used? How? As many questions upon which are fighting the FNSEA, the farmer syndicate in France, by drafting 18 months ago the “Data-Agri” charter. 

 

As every innovation in its process of development, aeroponics has limits yet remains an interesting concept for all the reasons evoked, and for many others not applicable to the context of this French region, such as extreme weather, food crisis, increased demand for urban crop production, and even the need of survival in space. It is a promising off-ground cultivation technique, for the world, for France, and for the gastronomical and historical region of Centre-Val De Loire.

 

Article written for the Youth4Regions Programme and the European Week for Cities and Regions, which aims at promoting local issues within the European framework.

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