Hydroponic Crop Cultivation as a Strategy for Reducing Food Insecurity; Sustainability Depends on Stability: Why Sustainable Civilizations Depend on Stable and Food Secure Populations

Justice, Jeffrey, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Louis, Garrick, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia

Moderate to severe food insecurity has been increasing for the past six years, due in part to changing climate and sea level rise, and nearly one in three people did not have access to adequate food in 2020. My thesis prospectus examined food insecurity indicators which affect how aid is distributed, but many indicators do not capture the risk of future insecurity, which is crucial for long-term stability and sustainability. The prospectus facilitated my sociotechnical research of the connections between food security and sustainable development, and lead to the formulation of a causal relationship using a multi-level perspective. Food security was also central to the technical aspect of the project, in which my team designed a hydroponic crop cultivation (HCC) system for small island developing states (SIDS) that frequently lose agricultural production to hurricanes. Our prototype houses an HCC system in a wind and flood resistant structure and can provide electricity during emergencies. The technical project reinforced the causal relationship between food security and sustainability through development of a supplemental food system with respect to continuity during and after hurricanes, representing a step towards moving the principle of sustainable food security into practice.

My sociotechnical research identified a key principle that can be applied to sustainable development – food security and sustainability have a causal relationship. Not only are food insecure communities often unable to look beyond their basic needs, but vicious cycles can emerge when short-term food security is achieved through agriculture and land use changes that damage ecosystem services like availability of water, airable land and fuel. This causal relationship is also evident in communities with higher stability levels, and I used a multi-level perspective framework to understand the extent to which lower-income residents in the City of Charlottesville could afford energy efficiency improvements in buildings. The results indicate that many residents cannot utilize the incremental savings of energy efficiency, and that sustainable development should consider the stability and capability of the audience. For a rising tide to lift all boats, all boats must first be able to float.
The technical portion of my thesis produced a physical prototype of a storm-resistant HCC system, along with computer-generated designs and documentation. My team was challenged to incorporate an HCC system in a floating, wind-resistant structure, as well as provide emergency electricity for lighting, communications, and refrigeration for up to 72 hours. The prototype was designed to survive wind speeds up to 130 miles per hour and a 10-foot storm surge by incorporating positive flotation, intrinsic stability, and folding storm doors. We prioritized constructability and affordability by using only basic building materials and assembly methods and the prototype was float-tested in the Rivanna River, remaining stable with over 600 pounds of dead load. Additionally, we successfully cultivated hydroponic crops including brussels sprouts, broccoli, lettuce, and basil - preliminary production rates indicate an eighteen-fold increase in crop yield as compared to in-soil agriculture. My technical project demonstrated the feasibility of a floating, storm-resistant hydroponics unit with emergency electricity capability, and it represents a unique solution to food insecurity induced by climate change and sea level rise.

My sociotechnical research examined the coupled relationship between food insecurity and sustainability and provided a theoretical framework for my technical project which sought to create a working prototype subject to a series of unique constraints. The technical project was a proving ground for robust construction techniques and reinforced the value of design simplicity which allows for flexibility and adaptation – essential qualities in a field prototype, where unforeseen modifications will be necessary. The prototype exemplified engineering in the real world where a perfect solution may be unrealistic, but a good solution is feasible. Taken together, my sociotechnical research and technical project illustrate how upholding the professional responsibility of an engineer requires consideration of all aspects of a problem to ensure that the design can be fully integrated into the sociotechnical fabric of the end user community.

I wish to thank the following people and organizations for supporting this project: Kathryn Neeley, for serving as my sociotechnical advisor and bringing clarity to my vision, Garrick Louis, for serving as my technical advisor and his perspective of engineering for humanity, The National Science Foundation EAGER Grant #200302, for funding the project, and Scott Wiley, for logistical support.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
hydroponics, food insecurity, small island developing states, resilience, solar, flooding, hurricane, dutch bucket hydroponics, multi-level perspective, sea level rise, climate change, food insecurity indicators, coping strategy index, food security
Sponsoring Agency:
NSF EAGER Grant #200302

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering

Technical Advisor: Garrick Louis
STS Advisor: Kathryn Neeley

Technical Team Members: Alexander Boland, Claire DeViney, Estefania Pages Arce, Emily Wiele, Nathan Wiens.

Issued Date: