Category Archives: Food & Farming

Greenhouses

Seawater Greenhouse's Somaliland Project

Seawater Greenhouse’s Somaliland Project: super productive fruit and vegetable production, where it is needed most

In blogs over the last couple of weeks I’ve looked briefly at the unsustainability of current systems of farming. As the global population continues to rise there are many predictions of further food shortages and yet more ecological damage. I remain convinced that we could feed 9 billion or more people and simultaneously restore biodiversity. To do so will require changes to systems of grants, subsidies and economic justice, which I’ll cover in a future blog. Greenhouses, and other systems of protected cropping, seem to me to be the most important technological change.

I grow a huge range of fruit and vegetables in my two small unheated greenhouses and little polytunnel, all in an urban back garden. We have plenty of organic fresh green salad crops to feed family, friends and neighbours every day of the year. For six months of the year we have an abundance of tomatoes. However it is at the bigger scale that the real possibilities open out.

Thanet Earth is the largest greenhouse complex in the UK. Inside each of their five huge greenhouses is a gas combined heat and power plant, utilizing the heat and Co2 within the greenhouses and selling electricity to the grid at times of peak demand. In Australia Nectar Farms have recently built a 40 hectare greenhouse project, linked to a local wind farm and battery storage system, to provide heat and light for greater year round cropping. Sundrop Farms Port Augusta project uses concentrating solar power to provide desalinated water as well as heat and electricity for their innovative desert based farming system. They, like Thanet Earth, Nectar Farms and many modern greenhouses can control temperatures very precisely, so ideal growing conditions can be maintained year round. They grow hydroponically, and use light, as well as heating and cooling, to maintain year round cropping. Yields per acre are huge.

Plenty Farms in California are expanding rapidly as Silicon Valley billionaires are pouring money into this new start up, which is organically growing leafy green vegetables under a system of vertical hydroponics and relying just on LEDs for light. Around the world others too are growing crops in old shipping containers, factories and warehouses, often in inner city areas, close to where the people are.

I’ve blogged before about solar desalination and mentioned pioneering projects in Australia, Jordan and Qatar. The team at Seawater Greenhouse have just completed construction of their project in Somaliland, which uses cheap shade netting and evaporative walls to create cool moist conditions in the hot dry desert. This is a tiny project yet it shows one possible way to rapidly and sustainably increase food production. It could be hugely significant in the future. Christopher Rothera’s blog and photos really give a good sense of this project.

Another system that I’m passionate about is aquaponics; I blogged about this in 2011 (here and here). Kate Humble and her team, together with Aquaponics UK have built a great system near Monmouth. Again it is a tiny project that could well be a prototype for much larger systems. They’ve some great videos on their website.

In this blog I’ve mentioned some very diverse types of greenhouses and related technologies. The one thing they all have in common is that they produce a lot of food in a limited area and do it in ways that are energy efficient and, to varying degrees, ecologically sustainable: just what we need to feed nine billion people.

Arable Farming & Ethical Eating

Maize, like other grain crops, is usually grown in unsustainable ways

Maize, like other grain crops, is usually grown in unsustainable ways

Last week I wrote about meat and whether it can be part of a diet that is ecologically sustainable. Today I want to look at the alternatives. The ethical complexities are many, and are one reason why I’ve never been a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. Take the choice between whether it is more ethical to eat Welsh lamb or Egyptian new potatoes. I decided many years ago that on purely ethical grounds the spuds had the greater negative impacts. When poor countries such as Egypt export relatively low value food items like potatoes, which require a lot of water and land, it pushes up the price, and Egypt’s urban poor are forced into ever greater food insecurity. Growing for export favours the bigger produces and pushes small farmers growing for the local market out of business, and thus land ownership becomes more concentrated. There are also of course the environmental impacts of growing the crop in a water stressed country like Egypt, and the pollution and carbon emissions of such long distance trade.

Most of the world’s arable farming is now dependent on a range of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and systems of ploughing that are destroying the soil and its complex microfauna. Bees, butterflies and the broad range of insect species seem to be in global decline. As the smaller and simpler life forms die off so to do the birds and mammals that feed upon them, all the way up to the iconic apex predators. These systems of farming have been responsible for a decline in organic carbon content of soil, typically from say 5% to 0.5%, which is very serious from both climate change and food security points of view. In most cases the use of genetically modified crops is only exacerbating the damage for a very small increase in global food production.

Traditionally environmentalists have argued the case for small scale, mixed, organic farming, or systems of permaculture. Such farming practices are certainly very much more ecologically sustainable, but either tend to produce less food per acre, or to require more labour. They also have not had the political support, and therefore grant subsidies, that more ecologically damaging systems of farming have had. I would certainly like to see more support for these sectors.

One area of food production that is expanding, and where huge increases in productivity per acre can be achieved in ways that are potentially very ecologically sustainable is greenhouses, polytunnels and other forms of protected cultivation. This is not to say that all such systems are ecologically sustainable, but some are. On the very small scale I have two small greenhouses and a little polytunnel in our back garden from which I harvest a huge diversity of fruit and vegetables all year round. The productivity per acre is extraordinary. However it is time consuming and the old green idea of the self provisioning economy has singularly failed to take off in this world of busy, time-poor, modern urban living.

In the next week or so I’ll write about a few of my favourite farms that are developing highly productive systems of greenhouse cultivation that show we could feed a very much larger global population with a predominantly vegan diet on a relatively small area. This could leave a considerable area of land for rewilding and for some pasture fed meat and dairy farming.

Meat

Can eating meat be ecologically sustainable?

Can eating meat be ecologically sustainable?

Meat is a complex and controversial issue. Can it be part of a diet that is ecologically sustainable and socially just? Arguments rage about this issue. One of the complexities is that meat is produced in very variable ways. The very best systems of pasture management can, it is argued, sequester more carbon into the soil than is necessary to offset the methane the cattle produce. They can also be part of restoring biodiverse habitats. In a blog in June I sang the praises of Will Harris of White Oak Pastures. However this represents the very apex of good meat production. The vast majority of meat production is very much less sustainable. Most animals raised for human consumption are fed on grain and soya that would be much more beneficially eaten directly by people. Even the best systems of meat production use a lot of space per unit of food produced. It would certainly be a good thing if humanity could massively reduce its meat consumption, say by 80 or 90%.

One of the common assumptions people writing about population and diets was that as people get richer they would eat more meat. Throughout the Twentieth Century this held true: not any more. Veganism is growing rapidly in many countries, and it seems especially so among the young and better educated. Also for many of us who are omnivores we are eating a lot more meals that are plant based, with a very much reduced intake of meat and dairy.

Globally levels of meat consumption vary a lot. Argentina and Uruguay top the table of per capita meat eating. India and China traditionally ate very much less but as people are getting wealthier they are eating more. Total global meat consumption is still rising but this may not go on much longer if veganism, vegetarianism and low meat lifestyles become more common, as I think they probably will.

If humanity could reduce its meat consumption dramatically, (say by 80%) that would free up an enormous area of land for other purposes. Some of this could be used for agroforestry or renewable energy projects, but the vast majority could be used for rewilding. Increasing the area of forests in the world could help restore habitats thus allowing biodiversity to flourish again, and it would be a very effective way of sequestering carbon, so vital in helping combat climate change.

Some people think that cultured meat, grown in laboratories, will replace traditional meat eating. Others see vegetable based meat substitutes, like textured soya protein as having a major role. Some argue we should switch from traditional meats to insects. Maybe meat eating will simply decline without the need for ersatz meats. Any of these perspectives may prove to be true. It is too early to say.

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.

Population

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.