Hydroponics as an alternative to food security
In many sectors of the city of Medellín, families don’t have a healthy food intake that provides adequate nutrition for the physical and integrated development of their members. This is due to the lack of economic resources, the scarce supply of fresh food in marginalized neighborhoods, the high price of fresh food and the families’ distance from the centre of the city and its low-cost markets.
For these reasons, in many cases the type of food intake that is dominant doesn’t represent a balanced diet. Fruits and vegetables are not regularly bought or consumed by families.
Thus, the families’ food insecurity and inadequate nutritional intake creates deficiencies, affecting biological development and causing diseases.
Taking this into account, it is urgent that alternatives are found to respond to these situations. The technique of hydroponics is one of the options available to improve nutritional security and improve levels of nutrition in vulnerable communities.
According to the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) of the United Nations, nutritional security exists “when all of the people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient nutritional food items that satisfy their nutritional needs and help them to develop a healthy and active life.”
Hydroponics is a food production technique that doesn’t use soil but substrates (the substrate is the base in which the plants grow and develop, and the case of hydroponics has the same function as soil). The most commonly used substrates in hydroponics are rice husks and sticky sand.
Nutrients that plants need for their development and growth are added to the substrate through their inclusion in the watering process. Various nutrients are included in the solution added to the plants: zinc and magnesium sulphate; iron; potassium nitrate; etc. In terms of the pots and structures in which these plants can be grown – known as containers – there are a wide range that can be used. It depends on the space and economic resources available. Generally speaking, the containers are easy to construct and materials can come from recycled materials.
It’s important to highlight that the technique of cultivating plants in water with nutrients is also known as hydroponics.
In general all plants and vegetables can be produced perfectly with this method. These include: lettuce, celery, coriander, parsley, cucumber, tomato, pepper, basil, spinach, beetroot, spring onions, white onions, kidney beans, spring beans and radishes.
One of the big advantages of hydroponics is that it can be implemented in any area to cultivate plants: roofs, patios, terraces, gardens, etc. Therefore, people that previously believed they needed land to produce crops have been convinced that they can now create their own harvests in limited spaces.
Hydroponics has other advantages
- It contributes to the protection of the environment because hydroponics:
– Produces healthy and clean crops. They are watered with fresh water and sowed in non-polluted substrates. This means these crops reduce environmental pollution and the risk of erosion.
– Uses recycled material for containers such as waste that would otherwise be thrown out. Items like ice-cream and margarine containers and oil and soda pop bottles are ideal for seedlings.
– Uses containers that can be built with wood or black plastic and mesh wire (to build hanging baskets or horizontal pots that are also called hammocks). It also reduces the amount of waste in our environments.
- Generates crops with higher yields and allows for the cultivation of a large variety of species, compared with traditional and organic agriculture because hydroponics:
– Isn’t so dependent on weather or climate.
– Allows crops to produce more per square meter, given that the time required for harvest is 40% less than organic crops and that a greater number of plants can be sown.
– Has a better annual harvest as there is the possibility of repeatedly cultivating the same species and having a number of harvests over this period.
– Allows for the establishment of any type of plant (vegetables, herbs, ornamentals, etc).
- Hydroponics provides social benefits for communities because it:
– Has become a strategy for improving nutritional security, given that it makes it possible for families to access healthy food in their own homes.
– Provides food with higher quality and more nutrients as it allows for the enrichment of food products with substances such as vitamins or minerals, resulting in nutritional improvement for families through the consumption of their own crops.
– Provides an activity to occupy the free time of the people living in the house.
– Can also contribute to the incomes of these disadvantaged families through the sale of the excess crops produced.
For these reasons the Fundación Mundo Mejor sees hydroponics as a way of ensuring and / or improving the nutritional security of the vulnerable populations in the city of Medellín.
From January 2006 to September 2007, the Fundación Mundo Mejor formed part of the implementing partners of an urban agricultural project funded by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). This led to the Foundation staff being trained in this area, which includes hydroponics. In 2007 the Executive Director of the Foundation traveled to Peru and visited the hydroponics projects run by the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina (Peru’s National Agricultural University), a pioneer in this area as they have promoted the method since 1975.
These two experiences represented contact with the most important hydroponics projects at national and continental levels and were the first contributions that led to the implementation of two hydroponic crop projects by the Fundación Mundo Mejor in 2008 and 2009 in 5 vulnerable neighborhoods in the city of Medellín (Moravia, María Cano – Carambolas, Villa Nueva, La América y La Gloria).
In addition, 5 Demonstration and Training Centers were created, which directly benefited approximately 120 people. Around 70 family vegetable gardens were created and these families received technical accompaniment and the goods to get their gardens started. These gardens were constructed by the beneficiaries and their families, which resulted in 200 indirect beneficiaries from the project, representing other members of the nuclear family of the person who received the training.
With the goal of installing capacities in other beneficiaries, the Fundación Mundo Mejor developed a handbook that brought together the main information on hydroponic techniques. It also includes simple and balanced recipes to include the vegetables grown in the daily diets of families.
The impact that these experiences had on the quality of life of the vulnerable communities in Medellín brought the projects to the attention of the mass media. The television channels Teleantioquia and TV Agro dedicated a significant amount of airtime to hydroponics and the initiatives implemented by the Fundación Mundo Mejor. Thanks to the continual broadcast of these television programs, various inhabitants of the city and the country have demonstrated an interest in participating in similar projects.
The results of these projects created the motive to continue promoting hydroponics as an alternative for ensuring nutritional security. For this reason the Foundation has developed proposals for projects that aim to implement hydroponic methods and is currently looking for partners in the hope of implementing said projects. This will contribute to the quality of life of vulnerable populations from the city of Medellín and its surrounding municipalities.