Does Hydroponics Have the Potential To Become Mainstream?

Technology and resources available, hydroponics still a distant reality

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Hydroponics is still not a widely-practiced technique in India, owing to the traditional nature of farming, high-initial set-up cost, lack of technical know-how, lack of awareness and the complexity of the technology. Besides, the Indian farmer is still poor. However, the most crucial inhibiting factor is, the mindset.  

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“Farmers believe that some staple crops and vegetables cannot be grown successfully without good soil/water, and plenty of sunlight,” said Akanksha Priyadarshini, co-founder, Food Revolution, a group of growers, innovators, foodies and plant ‘romantics’. 

“In my personal experience, they are not susceptible to change. Over 50 per cent population, with very limited know-how and low awareness levels is engaged in agriculture,” added Dhruv Khanna, co-founder, Triton Foodworks, a brand that stands for clean growing, accountable farming and reliable supply of produce.

So it seems, it is only the educated elite that can take up hydroponics. The heavy capital investment, the suitability of certain exotic crops, advanced knowledge, availability of elite customers/market and the ability to market to them, are some of the major factors why hydroponics continues to remain urban-centric.

“We emphasise on doing hydroponics in the tier I and tier II type cities only. It is only an urban-centric concept with respect to the cost of economy, because per kg cost would be somewhere about INR 30-40. So, you have to sell it over INR 100/kg. Only then you will be able to make something out of it. Hence, currently and in the future also, I don't see that it will be as beneficial in the rural areas,” said Vivek Shukla, co-founder, Rise Hydroponics, a controlled environment agriculture and EPC project developer in hydroponic farming and soil-less farming.

“Also, there is a limitation of crops that can be grown hydroponically,” says Khanna. “Our cost of production is a bit higher. Sometimes, if you take into consideration the cost and the time involved to grow the yield, it makes sense only to grow it in soil.”

As per the National Horticulture Board, Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, hydroponics does qualify for assistance, subject to projects covering 1,000 sq. meter in case of protected cultivation. The policy guideline states: “However, for capital intensive and high value crops under protected cultivation and open air cultivation of date palm, olive and saffron subsidy will be @ 25% of project cost with ceiling of Rs.50 lakh (33% of project cost with ceiling of Rs.60 lakh for scheduled and hilly areas).” 

While every state offers a different subsidy to its farmers, Maharashtra has offered a 50 per cent subsidy to adopt hydroponics for growing animal fodder. However, the ‘urban farmers’ still rue the efforts of the government and state that more needs to be done.

Priyadarshini, who shifted from aquaponics to hydroponics, said, “Support on subsidies from government, easy loan/financial support for the initial setup and knowledge dissemination on benefits, new routes to market, high profit margins and technology training from even agri startups, especially for areas with extreme droughts and low soil quality, is required.”

“Farmers must have three-phase electricity 24*7, as against eight hours currently,” said Shukla.

“Cheaper methods of hydroponics is important, like in Assam. They are using river as the bank for hydroponics,” according to Khanna. 

Nevertheless, hydroponics has made considerable strides and has enabled bring down the imports of exotic veggies to about 65%-70% now. “Over the next five years, it will be only five per cent, thus strengthening the rupee,” says Shukla.

What’s Ahead

In terms of hydroponics becoming mainstream and its contribution to GDP, Khanna believes, “It might take maybe a decade to see a small percentage of GDP being contributed by hydroponics. VC investments could promote this. Once investment flows, we can scale up, thus bringing down production costs and grow regular veggies. Secondly, we have to grow mainstream staples.” Khanna has received enquiries from the Indian Army, looking for fresh produce over the bread-peanut butter-Nutella staple.

“For metros and including Ahmedabad, in five years’ time we should see an increase in hydroponics cultivation,” Shukla added.

And for middle-income classes to opt for the produce, he adds, “It's all about understanding that. If one is getting something chemical-free, one should be willing to pay INR 10 extra for it.”

On their part, these firms are also taking steps towards ensuring food security at the local and national levels by, “Experimenting with vertical and horizontal structures to produce more and collaborating with organic farmers to fulfil the last mile, growing and supplying ‘Food with a Purpose’, says Priyadarshini.  

 “Till date, we have saved 10 billion litres of water by growing the same amount of crops, replicate the same model across India,” added Khanna.

Massive policy and mindset changes can only give a boost to hydroponics cultivation on a wider scale.