Hydroponics & Home Gardening to Beat Quarantine Boredom & Fight Climate Crisis

“This is a great idea, I can’t wait to plant my own garden!”

This was one of the responses Kevin Ramsewak, Youth Advisor to the Commonwealth Student Association, received on a Facebook post advertising his ‘Quarantine Agri Starter Kits.’ The response to his kit has been tremendous.

“In 4 days I’ve already gained 250 contacts, people are definitely interested. I’ve been engaging families and the kids at home from school.”

If you have to stay home anyway, people seem to think, why not plant your own vegetable garden? But can home gardening go beyond that and into a whole region’s food security strategy?

As Brandon Murphy, owner of HyGroGen TT, a local hydroponics and aquaponics business in Trinidad and Tobago shared with Climate Tracker, Trinidad and Tobago’s citizens are showing more interest in home gardening since countries began closing their borders and implementing lockdowns to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People who’ve never picked up a shovel before are now calling to find out about seedlings and soil to grow their own food at home.”

What benefits are these newly-minted home gardeners reaping? Will this burgeoning attraction to subsistence gardening influence people’s purchasing habits post-quarantine? And if it does, what are the potential impacts on national food security and climate change?

 

The Caribbean’s Ballooning and Unsustainable Food Import Bill

Food security is a major concern in the Caribbean region. Many Caribbean countries are Net Food Importing Developing Countries – meaning that they are heavily reliant on imports for national food supplies.

In 2018, the combined food import bill for the 14 CARICOM (Caribbean Community) member countries clocked in at $4.75 billion, as compared to its $2.08 billion in 2000, pre-imposition of duties, levies, and taxes.

The high food import bill impacts foreign exchange rates, budgets for social welfare and protection programmes, levels of chronic non-communicable diseases and displacement of local agricultural industry and production. Projections were that the bill could increase to $8-10 billion by 2020, which spells problems for the Caribbean countries.

A 2013 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) advised that “a continuation of the current CARICOM food import bill trends can only lead to further nutritional and economic impoverishment for the people of the region for generations to come.”

 

Food Security, Food Import, and Climate Change

Most of these countries being islands, transportation has become a major link between food security and climate change. In 2018 the FAO reported that global trade could contribute to climate change. Importing more food means more emissions are required to move it from one country to another.  

Reducing this bill can see the region’s limited foreign exchange allocated to other crucial areas that plead for attention, such as education and health services. It can also contribute to reduced transportation-related emissions.

Only 3 Caribbean nations; Belize, Guyana, and Haiti, currently produce more than 50% of what they eat (FAO).

Yes, the region needs a comprehensive strategy that invests in more resourceful food production systems, import substitution, and consumer education. It will also need to bring together the private and public sectors. But can we turn the soil on this gloomy food security story at a household level?

 

Plant what you Eat and Eat what you Plant

According to Sharda Mahabir, National Coordinator of the Global Environmental Fund (GEF) Small Grants Programme (SGP) in Trinidad and Tobago, we definitely can make a change. 

Mahabir told Climate Tracker that the most disturbing fact is that an alarming amount of the food imported into the region can be produced in the Caribbean.

“We have an obsession for foreign things and this includes food. We disregard our local fruits because our palette has shifted toward apples and pears over mangoes and paw paw (papaya).”

Sharda is encouraging her young nephew to get involved, giving him a hydroponics start-up kit. She is a proud promoter of home gardening and credits her parents for instilling this in her.

“The Caribbean has a perfect environment for agriculture, let’s maximise it! It is time to break out of the thinking that agricultural work is a poor man’s job. We all need food to eat,” she passionately expressed.

Sharda and her family have ramped up their home gardening since the lockdown. Now they’re growing lettuce, seasonings, patchoi, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, sweet peppers, and eggplants. She has not left her house in six weeks.  

“I have what I need and it’s all in my own yard. No need to hop in my car and burn fossil fuels going to the grocery, no need to contribute to the demand for imported goods, which require carbon emissions to get to the country,” she said.

Jureeza Clarke, a Learning and Development Officer at Beacon Insurance has scaled up her crops since quarantine. She started with seasonings, cherry tomatoes, and lemongrass and now grows a lush mix of coconut, mango, cashew, avocado, cherry, barbadine, and paw paw.

Clarke is  comforted that while people are out there panicking about food supplies, she has enough to sustain herself and even share with others. She’s been able to avoid the endless lines that cling from the gates of groceries across the island nation, and in turn she is protecting herself and her family from the spread of the virus.

“There are economic benefits but also health benefits. Planting has been therapeutic; my garden is my peace. Nothing beats going into your yard, picking something fresh and preparing a meal; the health benefits trump going into a restaurant for fast food.”

Speaking with Climate Tracker, Dariana Mattei, Bosque Modelo’s Women’s Solar Energy Project Coordinator and an avid home gardener from Puerto Rico shared that she’s always been interested in nutrition and good food.

“I started growing after hurricanes Irma and María impacted Puerto Rico. Now, during this pandemic, I started a bigger food garden using agroecological practices.” 

 

Hydroponics can help us Turn over a New Leaf

Mattei, who has an MSc. in Food and Agriculture Law and Policy, encourages investment in urban agriculture because of the worsening climate change impacts on the fragile food systems of island nations. She advises rethinking our approach to food, in order to improve our local and global food systems. 

“We need to shift towards small community farms that provide healthy food to communities. Access to healthy food is a human right and by achieving food sovereignty communities regain their right to land and grow food their traditional ways without toxic elements,” Mattei shared. 

One way to get closer to that goal is the implementation of hydroponics, a soil-less type of agriculture that keeps the plant’s roots are suspended in sand, gravel, water, or clay pellets (just to name a few). Nutrients are applied directly to the roots, and any water that is not absorbed by the roots is recycled through the system to be absorbed later.

When compared to traditional land agriculture, hydroponics has the power to win over any climate-conscious gardener; from novice to expert. As Brandon shared, hydroponics:

  • Saves 85% of water compared to traditional methods of planting.
  • Requires less space, making it ideal for urban spaces. 
  • Allows you to grow more in less time, using fewer resources.
  • Requires less manual maintenance.
  • Cuts your grocery bill.
  • Regenerating crops are easy to grow using hydroponics. 
  • Reduces dependency on food imports  

“When you look at the food on your plate, each item possibly came from a different country. Hydroponics helps reduce the transportation needed to get food to your plate. Controlled environments allow anything to grow in any season, and anywhere the world. No need to import,” he shared.

Murphy mentioned the Faculty of Food and Agriculture, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, which recently carried out a project that successfully grew strawberries (which usually grow in temperate countries) in Trinidad and Tobago. Importation of romaine lettuce has decreased significantly as local farmers move into hydroponics. 

Alpha Sennon, motivational speaker, farmerpreneur, agri-youth advocate, and founder of We Help You-th Farm (WHYFARM) said that, hydroponics is the way forward when we’re posed with two major issues in agriculture: water and space limitations.”

Drought, water shortages, and water scarcity are serious issues in the Caribbean and as the climate crisis worsens, the region faces increasingly hot and dry conditions. 

According to the World Resources Institute​, 37 countries already face “extremely high” levels of water stress and 7 out of these are Caribbean countries. 

“Balanced agriculture is the name of the game in 2020. We cannot continue doing things as we did before,” Sennon concluded.