Interview: Aeroponics - An Answer to Agriculture?

With seven billion mouths to feed, agriculture has undoubtedly remained a cause for concern. The increasing effects of climate change, diseases, poverty, changing land use, increasing urbanisation, and less spaces and land for agriculture, all add to the pressure. This is why technology and changing agricultural methods/processes need to be fully explored to ensure increased food yield in a sustainable manner.

Hence comes Aeroponics. Aeroponics is a process of growing plants in a mist environment - without using soil or water as a medium. This is a process which Samson Ogbole studies, uses and teaches. Samson is the co-founder of PS Nutraceuticals, an agricultural company that focuses on using technology, carrying out research and education, to promote healthier food and ensure food security. Samson was kind enough to talk to me about his work in Aeroponics Agriculture and its many benefits:

How would you explain Aeroponics to the average Nigerian?

This is a process of growing plants without the use of soil, any solid or liquid medium such that the roots of the plants is allowed to dangle freely in the air. The root region of the plant is a nutrient-misty leaden environment which ensures the plants lacks no nutrients.

What are the benefits of practicing Aeroponic agriculture

The advantages include:

  • Growing, as well as harvesting, can be done anytime of the year as opposed to seasonal planting which is the current practice in Nigeria
  • Growing can be done indoors or outdoors, on either a small or large scales
  • It allows for vertical planting, thus increasing yield by having space for more plants
  • Cost is one time for set up, so the farmer saves as there is no need for weeding or land preparation for subsequent planting
  • Fertiliser usage is reduced by 98% as the system recycles nutrients
  • Water usage is reduced by 96%
  • There is no need for herbicides 
  • Reduced use of insecticides and fungicides
  • Harvest cycle is faster as compared to normal agricultural practices, e.g. tomatoes in soil takes 70-90 days from seeds to harvest, but in aeroponics it takes 21 days
  • The yield from aeroponics have longer shelf lives
  • Vegetables from aeroponics have higher flavonoid content and antioxidants, which makes them them healthier
  • The system does not produce dirt as no soil is used - it is thus neater 
  • Systems are automated (remote control, or control online through phones or tablets etc.)
  • Plants last longer on the system to ensure multiple harvest e.g. yam can be harvested every 2-3 months for 3 years to produce seed yams
  • It has been established that vine cuttings taken to the soil from aeroponic plants have higher survival rate (90-96%) as compared to vine cutting from plants grown in the soil
  • It is easier to monitor the nutrient level of the plants on the system
  • It allows for more effective use of land and lands can be deployed for other purposes

Given all these benefits, why aren’t more people practicing aeroponic agriculture?

It is new in Nigeria (and we are) still trying to get more people to accept it as it is a bit technical. Despite the significant work i have done and the immense job done by YIIFSWA (IITA) on yam, most Nigerians still haven't heard of it. The media would rather push politics, religion or entertainment rather than an agricultural technology that is beneficial as it isn't seen as news worthy like the aforementioned. There is little i can do to push the message of healthy living, easier effective agricultural practice with the use of aeroponics technology.

What would you need, in particular, to help you get started with aeroponics? 

You can start with things around you - a 20 liters paint bucket and a small pump, and that is enough to plant 2-4 tomatoes plants, or 20 pumpkin plants or 10 yam plants, etc. The materials to do this are materials around us; it isn't rocket science. Fertilizer can be organic or inorganic, and even when inorganic, you will need a 25kg bag to feed 2000 plants for 5 years before it is exhausted.

How would you respond to people who would equate ‘planting in the air’ to GMOs? 

Aeroponics is like - geoponics- planting in the soil; hydroponics - planting in water so water replaces soil, and aeroponics is - no soil, not immersed or submerged in water, instead roots are in the air (on vertical support systems).

GMO products involve adding a foreign gene to a specie, e.g. GMO plants made to be resistant to glyphosate herbicide by adding a bacteria which produces the enzymes that would kill the glyphosate, thus ensuring such plants survive the herbicide; or making rice to have a golden colour genertically.

Aeroponics is totally different, you decide what kind of seed you wish to plant; organic seed, hybrid seeds, or GMO seed just as you would decide what kind of seed to plant in the soil.The system doesn't alter the type of seed; it confers no genetic or non-genetic modification. 

A way to understand this is a cooking method analogy - cooking with firewood (planting in soil), use of kerosene (hydroponics sort of as wick is in liquid) and cooking with gas (sort of aeroponics). The gas doesnt change garri from white to yellow garri or rice from white to golden; same way aeroponics doesnt change the seeds or plants.

Ultimately, Aeroponics holds a lot of potential, especially as a method for urban agriculture where space is an issue. The benefits seem plentiful, but much more needs to be done for the method to be adopted - it does come down to awareness and the technical skills to make it work. I'm eager to see how this will progress in Nigeria, and the part Samson and PS Nutraceuticals will play in this progress. 

P.S. You can also check this great short article on Agric Nation about Aeroponics Agriculture. Also follow Samson on Twitter for regular updates.