TED Conversations

Alexandra Cosma

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Could a plug-and-play, complexity-free, at-home hydroponic system for vegetable farming have an impact on urban food production?

Many of us have envisioned cities of the future with hydroponic vegetables towers and high tech versions of the suspended gardens of Babylon. Nevertheless, while such developments would surely impact the urban environment for the better, such changes require large financial commitments, years of planning or a high degree of initiative and organisation on the side of ambitious communities.

I believe that an affordable hydroponic systems build for home use could make a real impact. I believe a planter that controls all growth variables (light, humidity, nutrients, etc.) could be built for an affordable price, compact and space-efficient in most kitchens, designed to look like a work of art. My assumption is that such a product, designed with the goal of enabling city dwellers to easily and efficiently grow some of their own food, would appeal to many individuals who have never considered growing anything at home, because they lacked the time and knowledge for such an endeavor. My assumption is that if we could take away the complexity and maintenance requirements from the process of growing vegetables at home, many individuals would like the idea of being able to harvest their own food, would reconnect with the taste of organic fruit and vegetables and would encourage their kids to thus understand nature.

I believe that an innovative business model based on such a planter is the type of innovation that would be the base of sustainable food product. Such a business model could operate with the goals and passion of an NGO, but also have commercial feasibility in order to ensure a sustainable business. As an individual, I do not have the resources to build a futuristic hydro garden tower that would feed thousands. But as an innovation savvy startup-er, I believe I could build a product to feed one person at a time.

I need some feedback from you. Do you think this world needs something like this? I'd welcome you to challenge my assumptions

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    Mar 4 2014: There are several green housing developments in the works all around the world, so it is only a matter of time before architects learn what works and does not work. And create new standards in features. (Hmm? I wonder if in addition to hot and cold running water if high-rise apartments could have running compost tea for watering vertical gardens. )

    I foresee commercial vertical farms having a bigger impact, for example in Singapore http://skygreens.appsfly.com/home system is one I could easily see being the norm for cities worldwide. (see http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=skygreens&FORM=HDRSC3#view=detail&mid=771559862FE18D3E5976771559862FE18D3E5976 )

    We must take into account that most people simply don’t have an interesting in doing their own gardening, no matter how simple they can be made.
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    Mar 29 2014: Alexandra, thank you for your topic, I believe that it is crucially important.

    Can our future be very different from today's reality in the most wonderful ways? Can it be a future in which one celebrates his or her Personal Independence Day, every day; where the Golden Rule is thoughtfully corrected, and advises "Never treat others as you would like to be treated yourself - unless they agree to it first - because what works for you may be damaging for others"; and where the denizens of the small town in which one lives grow more beautiful and refined with age, because they never stop learning how to ultimately explore their creative minds?

    Would it be possible to begin to build this future today? Would it be possible to begin to build it without the need for arguments and fights with established authorities?

    Nova Town is our highly innovative project, which design and infrastructure will reflect a truly original, new vision of what a small futuristic town can look and feel like. With its enchanting architecture, narrow streets, curved walkways, non-fossil tiny transportation, unique stores, libraries, theaters, and schools within park-like atmosphere, the Nova Town's environment will be that of an exciting, peaceful sanctuary where denizens and visitors will experience truly sustainable living. Sustainable Local food production, and goods of all sorts, will be encouraged and supported.

    It is time to honor the uniqueness of each person, by creating sound small societies/communities supported by their own environmentally sound systems and services more adaptable to individuals - not to some non-existing collective prototype. www.novatownsite.org
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    Mar 14 2014: I think if a wealthy person built a greenhouse building it would be more helpful than individual indoor hydroponic system. It takes a lot of space to grow enough vegetables to feed a family.
    Here is simple, efficient way to grow outdoors: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXCnDqR0psY#aid=P-mfHCJqIH8
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    Mar 12 2014: Interesting strategy, thank you for your view.

    In terms of energy expanded, the prototype is using minimal energy. About as much per day as an average fridge per hour. Also, I'm Romanian. I come from a relatively low-wage country and have connections to manufacturing facilities that would abhold high quality standards. (Also the prospect of potentially providing a few jobs in my home country is appealing).

    I've thought about the Marijuana strategy, but honestly it's not one I'd like to pursue. Device settings can be easily changed though, so it could be used for weed, but that is not its primary purpose.
  • Mar 12 2014: Your product will have to compete with Big Agriculture on price. Your example did not include the labor, space or energy costs. Offsetting this you have the advantage of fewer pesticides, transportation costs or environmental destruction. Businesses will gladly destroy environments to make a buck, so you have to realize that moral or ethical issues will handicap you. Keep in mind that you have to compete with third-world wages and laws - a difficult thing to do. My guess is that your product would not be economically viable. Good for everyone, but not worth the money/energy/effort, means it fails.

    Now if you want a commercially viable product that will allow you to work out the bugs and develop your name-brand, manufacturing experience, etc. then I recommend creating an in-home, self-contained system for growing Marijuana. Over the next few years, as it becomes legal in more and more states, you will have a growing market that has no experience with agriculture yet wants to grow a small amount for personal use. Big Agriculture will not be moving into this market for many years as they do not like the risks involved. If you can make something reliable, easy to maintain and reasonably priced you should learn enough to 'go big' and make vertical urban farming viable.
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    Mar 8 2014: Recent developments in Singapore indicate that producing nutritious crops through hydrophonics can have a significant impact on food production.

    http://www.singaporehydroponics.com/
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    Mar 6 2014: That sounds really cool! Good luck with that.

    My product concept does not include a fist tank, as I want to make it as easy to maintain as humanly possible. But I really love the concept!
  • Mar 6 2014: A fellow at our local farmer's market sells a hydroponic hanging garden, with fish pond system. He feeds the fish. The pond water gets aerated and filtered traveling through the hydroponic garden. The garden in turn gets fertilized. He displays herbs, tomatoes, squashes and melons. On the small scale it fits indoors, but its easy to scale up. The design he sells is teracota colored plastic, but a little creativity could turn it more decorative. I'm working on a design for our garden that would be an herb and bonsai slanted wall scene with pond.
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    Mar 6 2014: Thank you for the feedback Keith. It's great to hear some encouragement.
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    Mar 6 2014: Everything in the direction of plants helps, Go Alexandra. My motto is "Gidder done". Do not be afraid to try over and over again, that's the road to success.
    "I have not failed. I've just found 10000 ways that won't work." - Thomas A. Edison
  • Mar 5 2014: Perceived cost vs. perceived benefit.
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    Mar 4 2014: It can't compare with the large scale farming, there's no doubt that, but it's still a start.
    The organic cherry tomatoes I bought yesterday (in Berlin) were 4.5EUR for 250 grams. They have to be transported and kept refrigerated (because pesticide and conversant-free products do not last very long) and consumed within a matter of days.

    Now on the other hand, with the planter design I'm looking at, for an investment of less than 150 dollars and a space investment of less than 45x45cm, you could get an average of 250 grams of cherry tomatoes per week. The goal of the system is to reduce your time investment to a minimum (refill tank about once a week and replant a new plant when the old one reaches the end of it's life, or is eaten). Assuming an average price for 250 grams of organic cherry tomatoes is 4 dollars and assuming you buy that quantity weekly, over a year you would have spent 192 dollars. In that respect it makes economic sense, and cherry tomatoes are only one small example.

    When I talk about impact however, I'm thinking of increasing urban food production, of enabling cities to be a little more self sufficient, a little less wasteful. 76% of Europe's population is now urban and large scale urban farms are still relatively far in the future. But if even a small fraction of this urban population manages to grow a small fraction of their food, transportation costs from country farms can be reduced, the need for food conservation is a little bit reduced, the supply chain is shorter and many other small scale inefficiencies occur. I'm trying to design a business model that creates a positive social impact, but makes economic sense on an individual level as well.

    I guess I'm just questioning if all these "little bits" add up to something worthwhile. Something worth dedicating the next years of my life to.
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    Mar 3 2014: "Nevertheless, while such developments would surely impact the urban environment for the better..."

    Impact how, please. Such small-scale farming can't hope to compare with the efficiency of large-scale farming in the country. Otherwise, what would be the payback for my investment in time and living space?