04 May

The future of agriculture – what will it bring?

Permaculture and hydroponics: The two opposites “back to nature“ and “beyond nature“ as sustainable and profitable alternatives to conventional agriculture.

Agriculture is a key issue of sustainability – after all, it is literally about our daily bread, our very subsistence.

Conventional industrial agriculture has a very large ecological footprint that, along with the rising world population and material wealth, has dangerous consequences for our planet. The idea that business as usual cannot be sustained in the long term has reached the mainstream, thus organic products that used to be relegated to health food stores can now also be found in discount supermarkets. However, while traditional organic farming may represent a compromise between mass production and environmental sustainability, there are also other opportunities for the future of agriculture. On a side note, there are increasing calls for a substantial reduction or renunciation of meat consumption due to its blatant resource inefficiency, and there are numerous new meat substitutes coming up. As for the cultivation of crops, I would like to present two models that both pursue the goal of intensive sustainable production but could hardly be more different from each other: Permaculture and hydroponics (or vertical agriculture), two opposing poles on the spectrum between “back to nature” and “completely beyond nature”.


Fig. 1: Bec Hellouin


Back to nature? The approach of permaculture

Some innovative farmers look back to the past in search of methods to grow food more effectively and sustainably. In fact “permaculture”, an approach that to some may sound too “alternative“ to be taken seriously, is basically a pragmatic return to traditionally close-to-nature food production. Apart from pioneering farms in the West, such forms of cultivation can still be found today in tropical subsistence farmers‘ vegetable gardens. Despite the almost total absence of technological aids, they are extremely productive in terms of produce per unit of land area as they make most of local resources, natural cycles and synergies.

Various crops are grown in combination, along with rearing of appropriate livestock. Pests are kept in check by a large number of beneficial organisms and diverted from more sensitive crops by a specific patch arrangement. Snails, for instance, can be countered by introducing runner ducks that also contribute to crop fertilization with their droppings. Several storeys of dense vegetation cover make optimal use of incoming sunlight and protect the soil. As there is no need for ploughing, the soil is well-structured and rich in organic matter, thus extremely fertile. Raised beds („Hügelkultur“), swales parallel to the slope and ponds ensure a balanced water supply, contributing to a beneficial microclimate.

As a prime example, the permaculture farm of Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer in Normandy boasts a staggering profit of 55€ per square metre, which is about 10 times higher than in conventional agriculture (with at the same time much lower capital and equipment costs). Its productivity per unit area is about 4 times higher. The case of permaculture thus shows how a holistically sustainable supply of food can be achieved also without industrial agriculture – provided that there is the corresponding know-how, joy of experimentation, manual labour and the higher prices that consumers are willing to pay for organically produced food.

More information on this exemplary venture:



Fig. 2: Gotham greens urban hydroponics garden



Cultivation in new locations through hydroponics: High-tech for food production

While all conventional forms of food production rely on soil as an essential basis, hydroponics takes a radically different path – it does entirely without soil. Here we are talking about high-tech production systems that are more or less isolated from the environment, in which crops‘ roots are supplied with a nutrient solution. Inputs of water, fertilizer and in the case of indoor facilities even light and CO2 are precisely monitored and controlled.

This form of cultivation is becoming increasingly common for lettuce and other sensitive leafy vegetables, but it also works for crops that cannot be grown in aqueous solution by using artificial substrates. A particular case is aquaponics, in which hydroponic crops are combined with fish farming. As fish excrements provide plants with nutrient matter, only fish feed needs to be added to the system.

Degraded soils, extreme weather, pests, pollution – various environmental issues affecting conventional farming are thus rendered virtually irrelevant. As production occurs under sterile conditions, hardly any pesticides are required and the consumption of water and fertilizer is greatly reduced. Increasing automation allows labour cost to be minimized, but energy consumption and infrastructure investments are high.

Hydroculture is therefore hardly to be seen as a panacea for future food production, but it is promising in terms of sustainability where unused (roof) areas and heating energy (such as waste heat from biogas plants) are available. This is often the case in cities, doing away with long transportation routes between producers and consumers. Gotham Greens for example operates the world’s largest rooftop farm on a detergent factory near Chicago using rainwater and renewable energy. The production volume on its 7000 square metres corresponds to a conventional farm with 25 times larger cultivated area.

Further information on hydroponics:

New Scientist: Vertical farms sprouting all over the world

World Economic Forum: What are vertical farms, and can they really feed the world?

Evelyn Oberleiter

Evelyn Oberleiter

Menschen und Organisationen in tiefgehenden Entwicklungsprozessen zu begleiten, die die Wahlfreiheit und die Achtsamkeit füreinander sowie für die Umwelt erhöhen, ist die Triebfeder ihres Handelns.

Evelyn Oberleiter, Mitbegründerin des Terra Institute, begleitet und berät seit über zehn Jahren Unternehmen und Organisationen unterschiedlichster Branchen und Größen. Den Fokus setzt sie dabei auf Organisationsentwicklung, Restrukturierungen, Unternehmenskulturprozesse, Implementierung effizienter und strukturierter Kommunikationsräume und –abläufe, sowie partizipative Führungsansätze. Evelyn Oberleiter verfügt über ein breites Wissen, ein schnelles Auffassungsvermögen, hohe Prozesskompetenz und Ergebnisorientierung, eine ausgedehnte Analyse- und Reflexionsfähigkeit, hohe Kommunikationskompetenz, sowie ein ausgeprägtes Systemdenken, Eigenschaften, die es ihr ermöglichen Gruppen wie auch Individuen sicher und langfristig durch Höhen und Tiefen zu navigieren. Neben ihrer Tätigkeit als Beraterin und Trainerin ist sie Geschäftsführerin des Terra Institute, der Terra Mater (Herstellung biologisch-dynamischer Erde) und der Terra Energy (Windkraft-Projekte).
Evelyn Oberleiter