SAIRAM REDDY PALICHERLA is one of the founders of UrbanKisaan, creating a sustainable and safe future using hydroponics. They are creating local micro farms, with a low carbon-footprint, and igniting agri-entrepreneurs to bring positive change for humanity and the planet. Here he speaks with LEAH RICH about the work UrbanKisaan is doing, and Kanha Shanti Vanam as a model for feeding a whole community.
Q: Good morning Dr. Sairam. Thank you for taking the time to speak about hydroponics with us. Let’s jump right in. To start, what got you interested in hydroponics?
SR: The interest here at Kanha was led by Daaji. He wanted to explore various non-conventional and sustainable ways of growing food. He has been doing this for the last twenty years, in his backyard in the US. This has been his passion – exploring alternative ways of growing food.
Prior to seventy years ago, food was nutritious and safe, but the quantity was not enough to feed the people of the world. There was a desperate need to increase the productivity, so fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid crops were introduced. This is also when the needs of the trader came into the picture – transportability, storability, shelf life, and packing in boxes became the focus. This happened at the expense of the nutrient content of the food and the needs of the consumer.
In the last seventy years, there’s been a complete shift in food growing. Now we satisfy our hunger but not our nutritional needs. That is where the challenges come. It’s time to shift back to local food production – I call it micro farming.
Q: So how does hydroponics fit in? I thought the nutrients in our produce come through the soil, but in hydroponics there is no soil. Can you explain?
SR: Our understanding of the source of a plant’s nutrition is also limited. When testing the nutrition content of crops grown in soil and the same crops grown hydroponically, is there any difference?
When we measure vitamins, minerals, macro nutrients, protein, carbohydrate and fat, research shows that plants can take up these nutrients equally well from soil and the liquid formula used in hydroponics. A large body of research shows that there is no difference.
Q: How do you ensure the required nutrients are in the hydroponic formula?
SR: There are three groups of minerals that a plant uses to meet its basic needs: macro minerals, micro minerals and major minerals. These are all present in the hydroponic formula. The rest happens inside the plant. Vitamins are manufactured inside the plant. Plants also require light and sufficient carbon dioxide to grow.
Q: So, what about meeting the need for light for plants grown hydroponically?
SR: There are two systems of hydroponics. One uses natural sunlight, for example, a hydroponic tower on a balcony, or a green house. The other type is for growing crops indoors, using artificial light. Typically, LED lights are used. They are low power consuming light sources and the beauty of LED is you can define the spectrum of light that they emit.
Plants require different spectra of light for different purposes. For example, photosynthetic activity requires red light. Hormonal activity requires blue and yellow. We can measure how much light a plant needs for a particular spectrum and provide it using LED lights.
Now we satisfy our hunger but not our nutritional needs.
That is where the challenges come.
It’s time to shift back to local food production
– I call it micro farming.
Q: Coming to the individual level, why do you feel is it important for households to grow food hydroponically?
SR: Six or seven years ago, I came across a news article that was published by an agriculture university, showing the levels of pesticides and heavy metals in the food we consume. They went around the city of Hyderabad and collected samples of vegetables from organic stores, supermarkets, roadside shops, and farmer’s markets. They analyzed the samples in their laboratory,and to my surprise and agony, all the vegetables were heavily contaminated with heavy metals. 45% of the produce from organic stores was contaminated with pesticides, and 100% was contaminated with heavy metals.
This is because the areas where food was grown were near polluting industries. And the surrounding soil and water body in every city, whether it be a reservoir or a canal is being contaminated by the toxic effluents. This contaminated soil and water is being used to produce the crops we are consuming. So even if produce is grown using an organic methodology, without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, the soil and water used to grow them is polluted. It’s impossible to avoid heavy metals like arsenic and lead.
This is where I see a huge need for home growers. And hydroponics is one method we can all use. I call our home growers micro farmers.
Q: What are the advantages of hydroponics? Can you offer some tips and guidelines for people who are reading this and interested in starting a small hydroponics system at home?
SR: It requires very little water, and you can automate it. If you go away on vacation, your crops can be watered while you are away. It doesn’t need much space. You can easily grow the leafy greens required for your household. All you need is a roof top or balcony that receives three to four hours of direct sunlight per day. You need four by five feet of space. If outdoor space is not possible, you can use an indoor kit with LED lights.
Now, expanding this to the community level, at Kanha we have enough hydroponically grown produce to meet the demands of the community.
Q: Are you aware of other communities setting up similar operations?
SR: This is a growing field. People are overcoming their doubts about hydroponically grown vegetables, as they learn about it and taste the produce. In Singapore, for example, where they have very little land to grow vegetables, they use rooftops to grow their vegetables hydroponically. We call them rooftop farms.
Q: This seems like a replicable model in urban areas worldwide.
SR: Yes, definitely. It is being well accepted worldwide.
On the commercial side, our first farm at Urban Kisaan was a rooftop farm in the heart of the city of Hyderabad. This is where we demonstrated that it can be part of smart city planning.
At Kanha, we have built six rooftop greenhouses. Different systems are being used to grow different types of food. We’re growing many types of leafy greens, tomatoes, eggplants, capsicums, and hot peppers. We can grow anything we wish.
The cost of the setup is an investment, but I’m sure in the near future governments will offer incentives and subsidies.
Q: What about universities and corporations?
SR: University hostels are asking for vertical farms to be installed. And corporates are asking them for their employee restaurants. Generally, they prepare fresh food, such as salads.
Supermarkets are also interested. The indoor kits are being installed in the supermarkets so that consumers harvest directly from there.
In terms of environmental impact, these initiatives are doing two very important things:
- They are cutting off the logistics component of food production. This reduces the carbon emissions as there is no transportation involved.
- There is no wastage either. In typical farming operations, up to 40% of the food grown is wasted before it reaches the consumer.
Hydroponics is reducing both carbon emissions and wastage.
Earlier we had backyard farming. That is becoming more difficult these days as we don’t have much time to devote to it, and there is a lack of space in our urban areas. If you have the space and the time, there is nothing like it. But if you don’t, you can try hydroponics as a micro farming option.
It’s time to promote micro farming,to decentralize farming. Micro farming cuts down wastage, and allows you to grow safe, nutritious food even in urban high-rise environments.
Q: Dr. Sairam, thank you so much for this eye-opening conversation.
Photographs courtesy of URBAN KISAAN
Sairam Reddy Palicherla
Sairam is Co-founder and Director of Research at UrbanKisaan, dedicated to environmentally safe and sustainable agricultural technologies. He has published over 30 articles in international journals, and received multiple awards. He was listed in the top 10 leaders in the Agriculture Industry for the year 2021.