Study on environmental impact of hydroponic tomato production

Greenhouse cultivation in the Mediterranean region has undoubtedly enhanced economic growth and has generated social benefits by making efficient use of resources. However, these production systems caused undesirable environmental impacts. In order to move towards cleaner production in greenhouse areas, this study has assessed the potential environmental benefits and trade-offs of the integration of an on-farm reverse osmosis system powered by photovoltaic solar energy to recycle the drainage effluents from greenhouses.

To that end, the team compared the environmental footprint of a greenhouse tomato crop using this technology in a hydroponic system (HS), versus the conventional sanded soil ‘enarenado’ (CS) with free-drainage to soil. Additionally, for comparison, three independent irrigation sources (desalinated seawater with low electrical conductivity and two different mixes of underground and desalinated water, with moderate and high electrical conductivity, respectively) were evaluated. The use of desalinated seawater can help reduce the overexploitation of aquifers, although if the desalination process is not done with clean energy it also comes with a negative impact on the carbon footprint.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) was used to analyze and evaluate six environmental impact indicators associated with these production systems and water treatments. In addition, a sensitivity analysis was conducted to explore the potential environmental benefits of increasing the use of renewable energy for desalinated water production, whilst also curbing the common over-fertilization malpractice reported in the study area. Based on the findings, the HS with leachate treatment technology showed, compared to the CS system, a significant reduction in the eutrophication (72 %), although it did inevitably increase the depletion of fossil fuels (43 %) global warming (37 %) and acidification (32 %) impacts, due to the need for additional infrastructure and equipment.

Among the inputs considered for the cultivation systems, the greenhouse structure, and the production of fertilizers and electricity for fertigation represented the highest environmental burdens. When comparing the three irrigation treatments, it was observed that the partial substitution of desalinated seawater by brackish groundwater substantially mitigated (27 %) the global warming footprint. The sensitivity analysis revealed that a significant reduction in the environmental impact is feasible.

Read the complete research at

Martin-Gorriz, Bernardo & Maestre-Valero, J.F. & Gallego-Elvira, Belen & Marín-Membrive, P. & Terrero, P. & Álvarez, Victoriano. (2021). Recycling drainage effluents using reverse osmosis powered by photovoltaic solar energy in hydroponic tomato production: Environmental footprint analysis. Journal of Environmental Management. 297. 113326. 10.1016/j.jenvman.2021.113326. 

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