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Aeroponics - an innovative approach to food production


STEM education is about solving a problem through an interdisciplinary approach that combines science, technology, engineering and maths. Students engage in STEM through the ‘design thinking’ model to create practical solutions and solve problems, a method also used by industries in Australia.

With this in mind, STEM principles can be critical in helping to address and solve problems in our society, such as food insecurity and food wastage. Up to 13% of the Australian population faces food insecurity, and that number increases up to 32% in our indigenous populations1.

While food security is broadly defined as “people having physical, social and economic access to food that meets standard dietary requirements to enable them to participate in an active and healthy life”, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, Committee on World Food Security, describes food insecurity as existing 'whenever the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire acceptable food in socially acceptable ways, is limited or uncertain'.

As such, being food secure is not just about having enough food; it is about having access to qualitynutritious and safe food.

Even in rich nations like Australia, many sectors of the community still do not have access to affordable, quality healthy food. This is known as a food desert. People living in food deserts lack easy access to supermarkets and grocery stores because of issues such as lengthy travel distances, limited transport options, zoning policies preventing the establishment of retail shops in residential areas and retailers’ commercial decisions that a region’s household income may not sustain a food outlet. In addition, the fast-food industry has normalised poor quality food and this is also having a significant impact on the health of individuals.

In contrast to food insecurity, Australia wastes about 7.6m tonnes of food per year Approximately 70% of this is edible food. This waste costs each Australian household approximately $2,000-2,500 per year. In addition, Australia uses around 2600 gigalitres of water to grow food that is wasted – this equates to the volume of water in five Sydney Harbours. The amount of land used to grow wasted food covers more than 25 million hectares, a landmass larger than the state of Victoria.

This waste adds 17.5m tonnes of CO2 to the environment. When considering CO2, we also need to look at how far our food travels, given all that transport contributes to the CO2. Referred to as food miles, the average Australian basket of produce has travelled 20,000 kilometres from producer to consumer. The greenhouse gas emissions of this transport is 17,000 tonnes, equivalent to 4,247 cars driving for one year. 

In 2017, the Australian Federal Government published the National Food Waste Strategy to provide a framework to support collective action towards reducing food waste. The Strategy outlined the definition of food waste and committed to a target of halving Australia’s annual food waste by 2030, in line with the requirements of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Target 12.3. Food Innovation Australia Limited (FIAL), was tasked with supporting the Australian Government to implement the Strategy. In 2020, FIAL published a roadmap for reducing Australia’s food waste by half by 2030.

Out of a study of 7 supply chain sectors, the three biggest wasters of food were a) on the farm itself, b) at the manufacturing stage and the most wasteful was c) the home. The good news is that each individual family has the ability to make a difference! While this problem may seem complex, recognising that our food system is broken and accepting we need to think differently about food is an important first step towards fixing it.

One modern initiative that holds key answers to these issues is Aeroponics, an innovative approach to food production first researched by NASA, see image at the bottom of this blog post for their research grow chamber.  Aeroponics involves growing a variety of foods in a managed environment with specially designed modular grow towers where plant roots hang in the air and water trickles over them. The water provides nutrients to the plant's roots which maximises nutrient absorption.

The stem.T4L program chose an aeroponics system called the Airgarden, designed and manufactured in Australia by a Brisbane-based company, whose passion to fix the broken food system and create opportunities for young people made them and ideal solution.

An Airgarden can grow traditional fare such as lettuce and kale, and herbs such as parsley and mint, as well as tomatoes, cucumbers and spinach, to name a few. The system can grow over 150 plant varieties.

The growing process includes sowing seeds and germinating, monitoring and caring for seedlings as they grow, filling the reservoir and setting up the timer.

There are several key advantages for using an aeroponics system for food production, including reduced water usage, given recirculating water is a main characteristic of an aeroponic system. For example, 80 litres is the amount of water used by a conventional farm to produce ingredients for a green salad comprising lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. The amount of water used to grow the same salad in an Airgarden is 5 litres.

An aeroponics systems allows the reduction of food waste by growing food locally and picking only what is needed. Using an aeroponics system will reduce the land footprint. An Airgarden grows 30 plants in 1 square metre, compared to the 10 square metres required to grow the same amount of produce using conventional agriculture.

An aeroponics system will also reduce food mileage and eliminate harmful chemicals. There are over 125 types of pesticides used in the production of Australian fruit and vegetables. 45% of these are suspected endocrine disruptors, which can be related to a number of health issues. By growing food, it is possible to know exactly what is being consumed.

Through aeroponics, students can grow a variety of foods and explore the needs of living things as they examine the difference between aeroponics and traditional horticulture. They can use a digital microscope to explore their adaptations and a micro-bit to monitor and measure changes in the environment. Importantly, students as well as teachers will explore and learn the benefits of creating, growing and nurturing an aeroponics system to help solve the food insecurity and food wastage issues in Australia.