Many areas of this planet aren’t suitable to grow vegetables, fruits and grains due to the local climate and weather conditions. This causes that many people suffer from the lack of food nearby. Richer regions can import food from remote places to offer to their inhabitants. Maybe in a very nearby future this global problem can be solved due to some creative minds.
Philipp Saumweber is creating a miracle in the barren Australian outback, growing large amounts of fresh food in a region where this normally isn’t possible. So why has he fallen out with the pioneering environmentalist who invented the revolutionary system?
The shabby desert outside Port Augusta, three hours from Adelaide, is not the kind of countryside you see in Australian tourist brochures. The backdrop to an area of coal-fired power stations, lead smelting and mining, the coastal landscape is spiked with salt bush that can live on a trickle of brackish seawater seeping it up through the arid soil. This desert is also known for ferocious and poisonous king brown snakes, red back spiders, the odd kangaroo and emu are seen occasionally, flies constantly. Many local landowners sell their real estate when they have the slightest chance to do it, even for bottom price. The only natural resource in these parts is sunshine and a serious lack of fresh water to cultivate food.
A small group of young highly educates people from Europe, Asia and North America made a remarkable decision. The group led by a 33-year-old German former Goldman Sachs banker but inspired by a London theater lighting engineer of 62, have bought a sizable part of this unpromising outback territory. They built on it an experimental greenhouse which holds the seemingly realistic promise of solving the world’s food problems.
Indeed, the work that Sundrop Farms, as they call themselves, are doing in South Australia, is beyond the experimental stage yet. They are using the sun to desalinate seawater for irrigation and to heat and cool greenhouses as required, and thence cheaply grow high-quality, pesticide-free vegetables year-round in large and commercial quantities.
So far, the company has grown tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, lettuce, herbs, courgettes, eggplant, strawberries and grapes. But it is also possible to grow and cultivate algae and fish.
but the same, proven technology is now almost ready to be extended to magic out, as if from thin air, unlimited quantities of many more crops – and even protein foods such as fish and chicken – but still using no fresh water and almost no fossil fuels. Salty seawater is free in every way and abundant rather too abundant but normally not useful to grow vegetables.
Growing food in a desert, especially in a period of sustained drought, is a pretty counter intuitive idea and Sundrop’s horticultural breakthrough also ignores the principle that the best ideas are the simplest. Sundrop’s computerized growing system is easy to describe, but was complex to devise and trickier still to make economically viable.
A 75m line of motorized parabolic mirrors that follow the sun all day focuses its heat on a pipe containing a sealed-in supply of oil. The hot oil in turn heats nearby tanks of seawater pumped up from a few meters below ground – the shore is only 100 meters away. The oil brings the seawater up to 160C and steam from this drives turbines providing electricity. Some of the hot water from the process heats the greenhouse through the cold desert nights, while the rest is fed into a desalination plant that produces the 10,000 liters of fresh water a day needed for the plants. The water the grower gets is pure and ready for the perfect mix of nutrients to be added. The air in the greenhouse is kept humid and cool by trickling water over a wall of honeycombed cardboard evaporative pads through which air is driven by wind and fans. The system is hi-tech all the way; the greenhouse is in a remote spot, but the grower, a hyper-enthusiastic 27-year-old Canadian, Dave Pratt, can rather delightfully control all the growing conditions for his tonnes of crops from an iPhone app.
“The sky really is now the limit,” confirms Dutch water engineer Reinier Wolterbeek, Sundrop’s project manager. “For one thing, we are all young and very ambitious. That’s how we select new team members. And having shown to tough-minded horticulturalists, economists and supermarket buyers that what we can do works and makes commercial sense, there’s now the possibility of growing protein, too, in these closed, controlled greenhouse environments. And that means feeding the world, no less.”
The Sundrop Farms System operates at its optimum efficiency and profitability when located in arid regions with lots of sunshine, close to the sea or a saline water resource, and in proximity to consumer end-markets. In each of these locations flat land is essential for more cost-effective greenhouse construction. The following regions and countries are most suited to applying to the Sundrop Farm technologies. The greenhouse concept is also starting up in Qatar.