Category Archives: Food & Farming

Aqaba Project

Sahara Forest Projects' new Aqaba facility

Sahara Forest Projects’ new Aqaba facility

A couple of weeks ago the Sahara Forest Project announced the opening of an exciting new facility at Aqaba in Jordan. It takes forward the concept of solar powered desalination and energy generation to make possible highly productive horticulture in hot dry deserts. This project has been a long time in the making; in February 2011 I blogged about seawater greenhouses and flagged up plans for a project near Aqaba. In January 2013 I wrote a blog about the Sahara Forest Projects excellent one hectare experimental project in Qatar. In October 2016 I wrote a blog about Sundrop opening the first commercial scale solar powered desert based horticultural project opening at Port Augusta in Australia. This new facility at Aqaba only has 3 hectares of glasshouses, with plans to expand to 20 hectares in a possible stage two of the project.

This Friday, 22nd September, I’ll be giving an updated version of my talk ‘Can We Feed Nine Billion People Sustainably?’ Of course my answer is an emphatic ‘YES’ with a few big ‘ifs and buts’. One of the ideas I’ll be including in this talk is how humanity might invest in some very big projects that could combat multiple problems simultaneously, from climate change to poverty, war and the factors creating so many refugees and migrants. One example I want to explore with the live audience is how one might invest say, £100 billion, or a trillion, to expand a project like this at Aqaba into thousands of acres of solar power, greenhouses, orchards and farmland in the desert and forming the basis of a new type of city devoted to sustainable and socially inclusive prosperity. Jordan currently hosts a very high number of refugees in a very generous way, especially given the poverty of many of its own citizens. Theoretically I want to explore if we could bring this entire population of about nine million people living in Jordan up to a Scandinavian standard of living and do it in ways that provided a model for other countries to follow? If you’re in Leominster this Friday do come and listen, ask questions and join in the discussion. I learn so much from your feedback.


Snowdonia & Hafod y Llan

660KW hydro at Hafod Y Llan

660KW hydro at Hafod Y Llan, with me peeking out from behind it.

Hafod y Llan is a farm covering over 2,600 acres of the south-eastern slopes of Snowdon. I’ve just got back from holidaying in the area and was very impressed by how the National Trust, who own the farm, are managing it. 60,000 people climb the Watkins path across the farm and up Snowdon each year. The National Trust run a lovely campsite on the farm and maintain the footpaths and in other ways welcome the many people coming to this magnificent scenery. They are also managing the land to increase its biodiversity by reducing sheep numbers, introducing Welsh Black cattle, and employing a couple of shepherds to focus the grazing animals onto those areas that need it and away from the sensitive ridges where grazing might be detrimental.

Three years ago I wrote about how the National Trust is working to produce half their energy needs by developing local on-site renewables, and also to reduce their energy needs by 20% by 2020. Then I wrote about the impressive marine source heat pump they had installed at Plas Newydd on Anglesey. Last week in Snowdonia we were very lucky to meet the very knowledgeable Wynn Owen who works at Hafod y Llan and who showed us two of their recently installed hydro electric systems. They had integrated the work into the landscape in a very sensitive way. One of the systems is a small 15KW turbine, the other, pictured above, is a 660KW system, which, as far as I’m aware, is the National Trust’s biggest renewable energy project to date. They also have a couple of other hydro systems, including the Gorsen 18KW at Hafod y Llan and a 45KW system on the neighbouring 2,100 acre Gelli Iago Estate, also owned and managed by the Trust.

The extensive farmhouse and buildings at Hafod y Llan house National Trust staff and volunteers, a holiday cottage and the campsite with its showers, washing machine and recharging point for an electric car. On site they have a range of other renewable energy projects, apart from the hydro systems, including a good sized photovoltaic array on a barn roof, ground source and air source heat pumps, 18KW wood pellet boiler and are hoping to develop a number of other projects in the future including an anaerobic digester.

So far most of the electricity that the National Trust generates has been sold to Good Energy, and as we are Good Energy customers it is nice to think that some of our energy is coming from them. Recently the National Trust has started selling some of its electricity directly to local people which is both more profitable for the Trust and cheaper for the local energy consumers as it cuts out the middle man.

The way the National Trust is managing Hafod Y Llan successfully combines tourism, biodiversity, renewable energy generation into a productive organic farm and has increased on-farm employment. It shows how land can be managed in ways that are good for ecology and for the economy at the same time.

Thanks to Keith Jones and Wynn Owen for providing useful information for this blog.


Today, 11th July, is the UN World Population Day. There are now nearly 7.6 billion of us, and the predictions are that by 2050 there will be 9.5 billion, and 11.2 billion by 2100. Global fertility rates are falling, but still we have an extra 83 million people to feed, house and cloth each year. Africa has the fastest rate of growth and Europe the slowest.

There have been many predictions of imminent famine and collapse due to overpopulation, as global food production would fail to keep pace with population growth. Also as the world’s poor aspired to rich world lifestyles the total ecological footprint of humanity would become catastrophic. Pollution would become more extreme and resources ever more scarce and the reason for endless wars.

However there is another possibility. Through peaceful cooperation humanity can collectively pioneer a new kind of global economy that rapidly eliminates the hunger and poverty of the world’s poorest people and the excess and waste of the world’s richest people. Together we as a species have the opportunity to work out sustainable solutions to all our problems, to restore biodiversity while feeding clothing and housing our growing population in ways that are socially just and ecologically sustainable. I’m sure it can be done, at least theoretically. To make it a reality will require the almost infinite creativity and capacity to cooperate that our species is capable of. I meet a growing number of people who are keen to play their part in this great transformation of the global economy. As Buckminster Fuller said back in the 1960’s ‘We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims’.

“Can we feed 9 billion people, sustainably?” is the title of a talk I’m giving tomorrow evening at De Koffie Pot, and was the theme of last week’s blog.

Food and farming

The vegetable garden in early July

The vegetable garden in early July

On Wednesday 12th July I’ll be giving in a talk in Hereford, 7.30 at De Koffie Pot, on the subject “Can we feed 9 billion people, sustainably?” My answer to that is an emphatic “YES!” with a few big if’s and buts. We live in a world where the old problems of hunger and famine persist and where a global obesity epidemic is emerging. Providing an optimal diet for the 7.5 billion of us alive today, or the projected 9 billion of us who’ll be sharing the planet by 2050, seems to me theoretically achievable but will require change in many ways. Many of the changes required are not to do with farming systems but with social and economic systems. Bringing peace, stability, democracy, development and probably some kind of basic income schemes to the poorest countries will be necessary to conquer the old problems of hunger and famine. Changes to education, taxation and other social measures will be required to address obesity.

Change also needs to come to farming systems, many of which are leading to soil erosion and water pollution and which are in any case often economically dependent on grant support which is unlikely to continue. I’ll be showing slides and talking about at least half a dozen very different farming systems that seem to me to offer hope. They are an incredibly diverse bunch. Some very high tech, some very low tech. Some building soil fertility and in the process sequestering atmospheric carbon, others, like hydroponics, by-passing soil altogether.

I’ve blogged before about Sundrop farms pioneering farm at Port Augusta in South Australia. They use solar power to desalinate sea water, and to provide electricity, heating and cooling for the greenhouses in which they grow huge crops of tomatoes hydroponically. Turning hot dry deserts into centres of sustainable food production seems to me to be one of the greatest opportunities to increase global food production.

The best systems of pasture management can restore damaged and degraded soils and sequester carbon while producing excellent quality meat and dairy products while improving animal welfare. Such systems are promoted by the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and one of my favourites is White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, USA. There is a great 14 min video with Will Harris talking about his farms transition. The resulting ecological and economic regeneration of the area has been hugely impressive.

A very different path is being pioneered by Iain Tolhurst in south Oxfordshire in England. Tolhurst Organics was the first farm to achieve the Soil Association’s Stockfree Organic symbol. They have pioneered building soil fertility with green manures and composting without any animal manure, so making the farm a beacon for those wanting a sustainable and vegan system of food production.

These are just a few of the examples I’ll be talking about at De Koffie Pot. If you’re in Hereford area then do come along and join in the discussion. You may know of farms that are doing great work, and if so I’d love to hear from you.

This Blog’s Achievement Awards 2016


Philipp Saumweber

Philipp Saumweber, Chairman & CEO of Sundrop Farms

Reinier Wolterbeek

Reinier Wolterbeek, Chief Technology Officer at Sundrop Farms

It’s the time of year to select this blog’s achievement awards. I was tempted to choose Jo Cox, whose murder has highlighted the growing threats from intolerance, racism and demagogues. Her memory has become a rallying point for those seeking a gentler, more collegiate, more inclusive form of politics. She and these opposing world views are getting much coverage in the media. As is something of a tradition with this blog I will instead choose people who are not much in the headlines yet have helped open up new possibilities, showing how we might live more sustainably in the future.

In October I wrote about the official opening of Sundrop Farms Port Augusta facility in Australia. This is perhaps the greatest technological achievement of 2016, in a year that has seen many extraordinary breakthroughs. The key individuals behind it have been Chairman and CEO Philipp Saumweber and the Chief Technology Officer Reinier Wolterbeek. They share this blog’s accolade, ‘person of the year 2016’. Using solar power to desalinate seawater, generate electricity and to grow food in the world’s deserts unleashes extraordinary possibilities. New cities might grow in the world’s hot sunny deserts based on these technologies. I’ve followed this from when it was just a concept, through various precursor projects, and now at long last they have a full scale commercial project up and running. No small achievement!

Sundrop farms next two projects are to grow peppers in Portugal and berries in Tennessee, neither of which is a desert environment. It will be interesting to see what technology they use in each of these projects to demonstrate their aim of making intensive food production very much more ecologically sustainable. I’ll be waiting to see if they, or others, plan further food production projects in the world’s deserts, and how they learn from and build upon what has just been achieved at Port Augusta.

Sundrop & Solar Desalination


Sundrop, with heliostat field to right, power tower and heat storage tanks centre, 20 hectares of greenhouses to left, saltwater storage ponds in left foreground

I’ve long been a fan of solar powered desalination, and have written about it several times on this blog. It offers the best hope of expanding and intensifying food production to feed a growing global population, and so simultaneously to leave more space for biodiversity to regenerate. So far all the solar desalination projects had been relatively small scale pilot facilities, designed to prove that the technology worked. It did. The challenge then was to build full-scale food production systems in the hot dry deserts of the world. The first such project has just opened.

Last week Sundrop Farms officially opened their newly enlarged facility at Port Augusta in South Australia. They have expanded 100 fold, from 2,000 square metre pilot to 20 hectare commercial scale greenhouses, which now are in full production, growing 15,000 tonnes of tomatoes per year in what was unproductive desert. Mirrors focus the solar energy onto a power tower which can generate up to 35MWt steam, 50% of which is used to heat the greenhouses, 30 – 35% is used to desalinate seawater and the remaining 15 – 20% is used to generate electricity. They get about 320 sunshine days per year, and have on-site heat and water storage to cover for days when the sun doesn’t shine, and also have grid connection for added security. There is a 16 minute video which really gives a good feel of the place and what they’ve achieved.

Sundrop developed from an original idea developed by Charlie Paton, which he called a Seawater Greenhouse. He developed many of the pilot projects. Now he is developing a new lower cost pilot project in Somaliland, utilizing cheap shade netting instead of expensive greenhouses, but still using his original solar and wind powered desalination techniques. He is working with Gollis University in Somaliland and Aston University and DFID in UK.

The Sahara Forest Project is another thing that Charlie Paton originated which has now spun out into a Norwegian based company seeking to develop a number of related ideas and technologies. In 2012 they built a pilot in Qatar. Now they are researching doing a project in Tunisia.

Together all these developments suggest possibilities of more sustainable, and more intensive, food production in the worlds hot dry deserts.

Brexit, Food & Farming


The Fold, a lovely organic market garden and care farm. Good for people and for wildlife, yet will it benefit from Brexit?

For more than four decades UK food and farming policies and practices have been hugely influenced by policies and funding stemming from the European Union. The whole Brexit process will be slow to implement and could further damage rural Britain as many good schemes come to an end. However Brexit provides a massive opportunity to create new policies and practices. A group of 88 organisations have written to David Davis, the Secretary of State overseeing Brexit, and to Theresa May. The letter stresses that many positive outcomes, in terms of public health, wellbeing, rural employment, biodiversity and global poverty can all be achieved with the right policies. I hope this government listens to this group and recognises their collective wisdom.

The number of farms has been declining in Britain for many decades. The EU Area-based payment system, as interpreted by the British government, has intensified this trend. Big, already wealthy farmers, mainly farming in ways that are not ecologically sustainable have received huge subsidies. Many of the most innovative, socially inclusive and ecologically sustainable farming systems are being pioneered on tiny land holdings that have been below the radar of these payment systems. I hope that these smaller scale projects get more support in future. The Landworkers’ Alliance, one of the 88 organisations behind the letter to David Davis, makes the case on their website.

Last week Colette and I went to visit The Fold, a small organic market garden and care farm selling a great variety of vegetables directly to the public through a few local shops and markets. It is typical of the farms that enhance biodiversity, sustainability and social inclusion yet have found grant assistance difficult to obtain, and which would stand to benefit if David Davis and Theresa May listen to the organisations behind that letter.

Orthios and biomass

Orthios Anglesey Plant

Orthios Anglesey Plant

In the summer of 2011 I visited the lovely small Austrian town of Gussing. I’ve used it as an example of the intelligent and sustainable use of biomass in lots of talks, blogs and articles. The town, and indeed the whole surrounding region, now use wood chip gasification and anaerobic digesters as the basis of their energy economy in a way that seems to work for both ecological and economic benefits. Yet wood chip gasification remains highly controversial, especially in UK where several projects seem to have ended in either financial or technological failure. With most innovative sectors of the economy there is a high rate of failure. However several environmental groups argue that large scale biomass projects are fundamentally unsustainable. Biomass technologies are many and various, and I would argue some have huge potential to be beneficial.

Orthios have plans to build two large biomass projects in Wales, the first on the site of an old aluminium smelter in Anglesey and the second on the site of an old steel works at Port Talbot in South Wales. They would import large volumes of woodchip (from forestry stewardship approved sources) to put through a gasification process, generate electricity and use both the surplus heat and the CO2 in a combined aquaculture and hydroponic system to produce king prawns and vegetables, and the gasification-pyrolysis process would also make bio-char, a way of long term carbon sequestration and also of improving soil fertility. They also plan education, research and development centres at each of the Eco Parks. This basket of interlinked technologies is something I’d read about as a theoretical possibility, and had followed various experimental projects over many years. It seems really good to me that a company are planning to bring all these elements together and at scale. The fact that SinoFortone, a Chinese investment group, have put £2 billion into the projects seems to indicate that they believe all the aspects can be made to work successfully together. The Anglesey project could be operational by 2017 and producing a very useful 299MW of electricity, along with sizable quantities of shellfish, marine vegetables and Biochar. I for one am keen to see this project go ahead, and very interested to see if it can be made to work as successfully as its promoters suggest.

The Orthios Project

The arguments against large scale biomass

Gardening: veggies & wildlife

15th July in the veg garden

15th July in the veg garden

The last few weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time in my vegetable garden. The great annual tidal wave of soft fruit is there to be picked, tomatoes, courgettes, cucumbers and salads are all there in abundance. The field beans (rather like broad beans, but even hardier) are mainly harvested by now: some we’ve eaten as a cooked vegetable in all manner of dishes, a favourite being lightly cooked and marinated in a dressing and served like an Italian antipasto, also we’ve frozen lots for the winter. I’m sure my urban garden is now producing more food than my old smallholding ever did, despite being a tiny fraction of the size.

One of the great joys this year has been the abundance of wildlife. The thrushes nesting in the neighbours’ sycamore tree have raised at least one brood of chicks. Hearing them crack open snails on the concrete path one realises the importance of helpful predators, and we’ve plenty of frogs and toads eating the slugs and ladybirds and spiders to eat the aphids. Sparrows and blackbirds seem to be breeding better than ever and from time to time a sparrowhawk comes to pick off the odd one. In winter sometimes we hear a tawny owl. All pretty good for a city centre garden! I hear goshawks are now nesting in Berlin. I’d love them to come over here. Pigeons ate a lot of my young pea and climbing bean plants this year, and pecked a lot of holes in the chard, so having some local goshawks to cull the pigeons would certainly help my vegetable production!

Last winter I read George Monbiot’s book ‘Feral’. A fascinating read about re-wilding the British countryside. Current farming practices have denuded much of our rural biodiversity, and in many instances our urban landscapes are better for wildlife. Our garden has lots of species of bumble bee this year, and in large numbers. Gardens and allotments have a vital role to play both in terms of food production and in terms of providing a refuge for wildlife, and joy for us humans.

Solar Desalination & Industrial Process Heat

WaterFX's Aqua4 solar desalination: modular and scaleable

WaterFX’s Aqua4 solar desalination: modular and scaleable

Solar powered desalination is potentially one of those amazing disruptive technologies which could change human history for the better. It could secure water supplies for water stressed communities in the hot dry tropics, and open up desert areas for agriculture, energy generation and human settlement. It could be a real game changer. A number of exciting technologies exist, some old, some new, but none as yet deployed at scale. I’ve written about the Seawater Greenhouses developed by Charlie Paton, and adapted into the Saltwater Greenhouses that Philipp Saumweber and Sundrop Farms have built in Australia and Qatar. Sundrop Farms is planning a major expansion this year. Exciting stuff.

Meanwhile in California another small start up company, WaterFX, has just opened the first of a new kind of solar desalination process and are putting it to a new use. I’d always thought about using solar desalination in the context of taking sea water and making it into fresh water, and therefore of use in coastal locations. WaterFX is using their Aqua4 concentrated solar still at Panoche in California’s dry central valley to recycle polluted agricultural irrigation water. As well as producing fresh water they can extract a range of useful and saleable products from the polluted water, including salt, gypsum, magnesium sulphate, selenium and boron.

Also in the news at the moment are a couple of interesting experimental scale concentrating solar power breakthroughs by the Paul Scherrer Institute. The first uses the sun’s energy to extract very pure zinc oxide from industrial waste. The second utilizes concentrating solar power to produce syngas (a hydrogen / carbon monoxide mix) from various waste materials, which could be used as an energy storage medium, or directly in industrial processes such as cement manufacture.

Solar Desalination, WaterFX and

Oliver Balch CSP Today

Paul Scherrer Institute and