In today’s Finshots, we tell you about electronic soil and why it might be a boon for food security.

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The Story

What if we tell you that stimulating a plant’s roots electrically can help it grow faster?

That’s what scientists in Sweden discovered anyway. All you need is water, nutrients, and something called a substrate. Think of it as a surface that roots can attach to. Then you pass the electric current through the substrate and voila, the plant blossoms. In fact, these scientists found that barley seedlings grew 50% faster in 15 days.

And since there’s no real soil involved in this, they’re calling it eSoil.

But how did they even come up with such a peculiar idea, you ask?

Well, it’s not a new idea really. It dates back to at least 600 years before the common era. Some wise folks observed that despite the dry weather along the Euphrates River, lush green gardens grew up the walls of an ancient city called Babylon. We’re talking about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The plants here didn’t have soil. But their roots absorbed nutrients from the river nearby ― similar to a pulley system of drawing water from a well.

And many centuries later, precisely in 1937 an American scientist Dr. William Frederick Gericke figured out that this water-based farming strategy worked wonders. It just needed the addition of some chemicals to help it along. This way, plant roots could utilise nutrients more efficiently than when grown in soil. And he coined the term hydroponics for this form of agriculture — part hydro which was Greek for water, and ponos which meant labour.

After all these years, you’d imagine the world of hydronics was due for some innovation, no? And that’s probably come in the form of passing the electric current through a suitable substrate material.

But why’s this a big deal?

You see, every year we add roughly 83 million people to the world’s population. And that means the earth will be 10 billion strong by 2050. So there has to be a way to feed this growing population.

Sure, we’re trying to increase food production and improve its global distribution by pooling resources so farmers across the world have better access to fertilisers and new farming techniques. But here’s the thing. All of this needs vast spaces of agricultural land. Now, close to 40% of the global land surface is agricultural. And we use a third of that — 1.5 billion hectares — for crops. In case you want to picture it, that’s nearly 3 billion football fields. Yup, quite a lot to imagine. But even that is shrinking, thanks to the growing population. More people not only means more food but also more infrastructure development. So cropland naturally gets eaten up. For context, between 1961 and 2016 the global cropland area has fallen from about 0.45 hectares to 0.21 hectares per capita. We can’t just wake up one day and reverse that.

Besides, food insecurity has also been on the rise since 2018 because of climate change. Global warming influences weather patterns, causes heat waves, unseasonal rainfall and even droughts. To make it even worse, the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict took their toll on food production. The cost of growing food, distributing it and feeding people shot up. This means that over 828 million people around the world go to bed hungry every night today.

Now while researchers constantly try to whip up new crop varieties that are resilient to climate change, increasing food production is still a challenge.

That’s where hydroponics could make a mark — No agricultural lands, no fertiliser and no soil too. The much talked about vertical farming could see a boost. Vertical farms are buildings filled with a lot of hydroponic systems that grow crops in an indoor, temperature-controlled environment. And it’s already live in Dubai, a city that imports 85% of its food. The 330,000-square-foot facility can produce over 900,000 kilos of leafy greens annually. And these hydroponic systems need just 10% of the amount of water that traditional field crops require because the water is re-used easily. So in a water-scarce world, that’s a plus.

But wait… won’t all these manmade structures require a lot of electricity for lighting, water and air pumps and other systems to control humidity and temperature? That's true, which is why eSoil tries to solve these very problems.

You see, typical hydroponic systems use mineral wool as a cultivation substrate. But making it is quite an energy-intensive process. It’s also not biodegradable. On the other hand, eSoil uses cellulose and another conductive material that doesn’t suck too much energy. In fact, the researchers titled their paper - "A low-power bioelectronic growth scaffold that enhances crop seedling growth." Low power being the key word.

The only problem is that it's still just one paper. We don't know if this will scale or whether other scientists can replicate this success. It's still very very early days. Also, even if it did scale, how will the world pool in the investments needed to further its use. Because it’s the low-income countries like those in sub-Saharan Africa that need this kind of stuff. How will eSoil and hydroponics work here considering the initial investments can be sizeable.

Well, hopefully we will figure out a way to do just that before its too late.

Until then…

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