Category Archives: Food & Farming

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


More about bees


British black bee








In my last blog I used the global decline of bees as an example of the battles between ecologically and economically driven value systems. By coincidence a few days later the BBC showed an excellent programme called ‘What’s killing our bees?’

The programme was written and presented by Bill Turnbull, who as bee keeper and journalist asked good questions as to the causes of the bee decline, but typically with our media was then rather cautious as to making strong policy recommendations. 

The programme showed that, as we might expect, the issue is complex. Basically it argued that there are three main issues undermining bees: the varroa mite, pesticides and changes to agricultural practice, with the added short term problem of bad weather.

One interesting fact is that now urban beekeepers in cities like London and Paris are producing more and perhaps better quality honey than can be produced in the surrounding agricultural hinterlands. This it seems is due to the rich mix of flowering plants and lack of pesticides in cities, and also possibly partly due to the urban heat island effect. There was one interesting piece of research being done planting wild flower borders in arable fields which seemed to be having positive results.

Clearly many things need to change in order to protect the bees, on whose pollination services we are so dependent. I would like to see three areas of change: the banning of more of the most damaging pesticides, of which neonicotinoids are just the tip of the iceberg, a major shift from monocultures to polycultures including as many species of flowering plants as possible and the preservation and promotion of maximum genetic diversity in bee populations, especially of the British native black honeybee which due to its long adaptation to our climate seems more resistant to both varroa mites and bad weather than the generally kept European honeybee.


The last couple of blogs may seem a bit nerdy. Concentrating solar thermal power is not yet a widely used technology and not appropriate for the British climate. I will continue to write about it from time to time because I believe it to have enormous potential as a clean source of power for much of the world. However I will continue to write about a great breadth of other things that show that a better future is possible for humanity. Today I want to write about hunger.

Genetically modified rice is just about to be planted in the Philippines. Enhancing the vitamin A content of the rice can prevent various diseases, but only to the same extent as eating carrots, squash, pumpkin or other vitamin A rich food with the rice has done for millennia. The vast coverage of both pro and anti GM opinions seems to miss a couple of basic points. People are hungry and malnourished because they are poor: overcoming extreme inequality is absolutely essential, without that the introduction of GM crops will make little difference. Today humanity already grows enough food to feed all 7 billion of us, but much gets wasted or fails to get to those who cannot express economic ‘demand’ despite nutritional need. As seems probable global population will reach 9 billion or more by mid-century there is clearly a need to raise agricultural production along with combating inequality. There are many ways in which this can be sustainably done, often with multiple benefits to multiple stakeholders. Compared to some of these lesser known ideas, technologies and land management systems the claims of GM seem to be so much hype. I have written about a number of these inspirational alternatives on this blog over the past couple of years. For example the basket of technologies in use in the Qatar project I blogged about in January has the power to transform deserts into food and energy exporters in a way that makes the claims of GM seem very weak. My next blog will be on the dramatic benefits of good pasture management. It is one of those classic multi-win situations: a carbon negative way to increase productivity and the incomes of poor farmers, counter soil erosion and desertification, increase soil fertility and biodiversity, and it could be argued fosters political inclusivity. What’s not to like.

UK Infrastructure

map of canal route

Pownall Contour Canal

UK Infrastructure

We need to make some big infrastructure investments in the UK. The question is which ones, and for what outcomes.

Currently the Coalition government seems set to spend £100 billion on replacing Trident. A vast waste of money on anachronistic Cold War technology totally unsuited to the World we now find ourselves in. Let’s scrape it and use the money elsewhere in the economy.

Phase One of the HS2 high speed rail link from London to Birmingham looks set to go ahead, at a cost estimated to be between £15.8 and £17.4 billion. The full route up to Manchester and Leeds will cost about £30 billion. Transporting larger numbers of people a bit more quickly between our major cities seems a somewhat limited aspiration, given the cost, and the impact on the local environment. We could do better.

The London Array has recently started generating electricity. The first phase, consisting of 175 Siemens 3.6 MW turbines, giving a capacity of 630 MW and costing 2.2 billion Euros or approximately £1.76 billion should be complete within a couple of months. This will make a useful contribution to the UK energy supply at a reasonable cost.

A potential infrastructure project with multiple benefits has been promoted by David Weight on the Claverton Energy discussion group, and into which our government should conduct a feasibility study. Essentially the plan is to build a large new canal, following the 310ft contour line, as advocated by Pownall in 1942, but extending northwards at least as far as Kielder Water, and preferably into Scotland’s Southern Uplands. The proposal is to bring water from the areas of surplus in Scotland, Northumberland and Wales to the areas of greatest shortage in the southeast of England, for agricultural, industrial and domestic use: very useful as we adapt to a changing climate.

The canal would also be used for transport, especially for heavy goods such as timber for biomass, and also for recreational use. The really exciting aspect of the proposal is for it to be used for energy storage and transmission. Water cooled High Voltage Direct Current cables would be laid along the route, bringing the abundant renewable energy from Scotland and Wales to the centres of maximum demand in the major English cities. The canal itself could be used for pumped storage hydro by having subsidiary reservoirs at higher and lower levels along the route, but especially in the Southern Uplands of Scotland. Many existing thermal power stations such as Drax are already located along the route and increasingly using biomass to replace some of their coal consumption. New biomass power stations, fitted with carbon capture and storage, may be located along the route. Surplus heat from all these power stations could be fed into district heating systems and used in intensive greenhouse horticulture.

The canal might also be a useful route for fibre optic data transmission, and high energy consumption data centres might be located in the Southern Uplands where the renewable energy potential is most abundant. There would be huge scope for new urban development, and it has been suggested that this planning gain might be used to pay for the whole project. Nature reserves could be strung all along the route maximizing its biodiversity and recreational potential. A cycle path could easily be incorporated. At an estimated cost of between £11.1 and £18.0 billion this could be a very good investment: certainly worth a detailed feasibility study.


High Speed 2:-

London Array:-

The Canal Proposal:-


100% renewable energy and 100% organic agriculture as a Herefordshire, UK or Global policy

(Organic Farming in India)
I often start my talks with a slide of Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, with a quote of his “this is a crucial century. The Earth has existed for 45 million centuries. But this is the first time when one species, ours, can determine — for good or ill — the future of the entire biosphere.” Of course there is plenty of evidence to suggest we are wrecking the biosphere and therefore our own future. There is, as readers of this blog will be aware, also a growing body of evidence to suggest a radically better alternative is possible and is in many places being made manifest.
Two key footsteps toward a better future are renewable energy and organic agriculture. Some small places such as Varese in Liguria, Italy, have long worked toward 100% renewables energy and 100% organic agriculture. The really exciting news this week is that 100% renewables, for heat, electricity and transport fuels is now official government policy in Denmark. The aim is to achieve this ambitious goal by 2050, with lots of key dates along the way, such as banning natural gas boilers in new build from next year.
The other really exciting thing I heard this week is the growth of organic farming in India. The Indian state of Sikkim hopes to be 100% organic by 2015 and Uttarakhand, Nagaland and Mizoram intend to follow. Some of the ways organic farming is being developed in India are really innovative. Ashmeet Kapoor and his team at Jagriti Agro Tech are using modern communications technology to help lots of small organic farmers link together and market directly to consumers, by-passing very inefficient, wasteful and exploitative supply chains and so getting cheaper, fresher organic produce to consumers while helping small farmers make a better living.
What about 100% renewable energy and 100% organic agriculture as a Herefordshire, UK or Global policy goal!