Is it a pepper plant? A new type of cannabis? A strange tomato? Nope, it isn't. It's cotton that's growing in this Spanish greenhouse. Collaborating with luxury brands, Magtech aims to demonstrate the viability of hydroponic cotton as a sustainable alternative to conventional cotton – and initiator David Rene Rodriguez is sure the potential for wider adoption exists. "The raw material supply chain in the clothing industry is totally broken."
When we think of agriculture, food production often comes to mind. However, David brings attention to the lesser-known aspect of farming – cotton cultivation. "Cotton, a vital raw material for textiles and garments, accounts for around 30% of the world's clothing, and the global cotton acreage is over 30 million hectares. The traditional outdoor cotton farming process is resource-intensive, with plants needing an extensive amount of water and limited crop rotation. Furthermore, the average lifespan of a cotton plant is just 3 to 6 months, resulting in a single harvest per year", David says. As a former currency trader for Citibank and as a former resident of Bangladesh -where he was living for four years making garments, he has embarked on a journey that he is hoping will change the landscape of cotton farming.
Magtech's solution to these challenges lies in hydroponic technology. Drawing inspiration from the horticultural industry, the team started in 2021 with small-scale experiments, followed by lab tests in 2022. Currently, they are conducting a proof of concept both on coco peat as solely on water and have plans to expand to 1 hectare by 2025. Rodriguez's team has successfully grown cotton plants using hydroponic methods in a controlled environment. They have partnered with Cajamar agricultural bank and leveraging Lanzadera's accelerator program to test their methods on a larger scale. The project, initially on two 100m² facilities, has demonstrated promising results.
"Hydroponics offers several advantages over traditional farming methods, which we know from the food industry. What we see now is using hydroponics is more resilient than outdoor-grown cotton. By carefully controlling the environment, we protect plants from various external factors and achieve a 60% reduction in water consumption", David shows. "And one of the most remarkable benefits of hydroponic cotton farming is the dramatic increase in yield: we've seen up to 60 times more yield compared to traditional methods, as we can achieve multiple harvests from a single plant", David says, adding that the results might sound great, but are nothing compared to the responses from people visiting the farm. "This is why we keep on inviting colleagues, friends, and the industry as a whole to come over."
LED lighting and harvest robots
While the results are promising, challenges remain. The team is learning more about growing cotton hydroponically day by day, is looking into LED lighting, and is working to ensure the quality of the harvested product through multiple harvests from the same plants. Also, collaborating with the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and Murcia, projects have started to create a digital twin for the cotton greenhouse and to create a robotic harvester for cotton plants.
Aside, there's more than solely the growing challenges. The production chain of cotton is not much in sight of the fashion industry, let alone of the consumers. This is also why David's vision extends beyond his company's success. He believes that the key to transforming the cotton industry lies in making consumers aware of alternatives. "Organic cotton gained recognition over the past decade but turned out not to be a sustainable solution. I envision a future where hydroponic cotton becomes a prominent solution for the fashion industry." The company currently focuses on luxury brands. "But decades ago, hydroponic farming was something only the highly educated Dutch growers could do, whereas it nowadays is widely applied in the vegetable industry. If you can do that in tomatoes, why wouldn't you do it in cotton?"
For more information:
David René Rodríguez
Mediterranean Agro Technologies, S.L. (Magtech)
Carrer del Moll de la Duana, s/n,
46024 Valencia (Spain)
Tel.: +34 642 409 256