Innovation of the Month: Aeroponic Technology

Aeroponic farming—the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil—can help to meet rising demand for food in urban areas.

About the Authors 

Carolyn Smalkowski is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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As the world’s urban population continues to grow, the demand for food in urban areas continues to expand. To meet this demand, urban agricultural innovations are sprouting up in countries and communities around the world. Aeroponic farming—the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil—is one such innovation.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA), aeroponic systems allow for clean, efficient, and rapid food production. In aeroponic systems, crops, which are isolated from seasonal change, can be planted and harvested year round without interruption and without contamination from soil, pesticides, and residue. And because aeroponic growing environments are clean and sterile, the chances of spreading plant disease and infection are less common than in soil-based systems. As a result, aeroponic farming systems can yield high-value crops—such as leafy greens, herbs, and micro-greens—quickly and reliably.

According to AeroFarms, a producer of aeroponic systems in Ithaca, New York, aeroponic production is superior to conventional and greenhouse production for a variety of reasons: the produce does not require washing after harvest; can be delivered fresh to stores and restaurants on a daily basis; has a shelf life of 3 to 4 weeks; offers year round seasonality; has a faster growth cycle; and does not need to be treated with pesticides.

When asked about the benefits of aeroponics, AeroFarms’ Founder and CEO Ed Harwood said, “What I plant is what I harvest, so I can predict what I’m going to have two or three weeks from now, which is much more difficult when the circumstances aren’t controlled.” For farmers whose livelihoods depend on successful harvests, the control and predictability associated with aeroponic production can be a major boon. 

Aeroponic technology uses no pesticides and 90 percent less water than traditional farming—which is responsible for about 70 percent of global water use, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization—and can be adapted to most urban environments. It can also prevent harmful pesticide runoff associated with conventional production, and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by providing grocers and restaurants with a local alternative to imported produce.

The concept of aeroponic farming is spreading from urban warehouses to community centers to individual homes. Teachers have introduced aeroponic systems into classrooms, to teach children about plants, the environment, and the value of healthy eating, and the Chicago O’Hare International Airporthas even set aside a portion of its G Terminal to grow greens for airport restaurants.