While there has been a lot of talk recently about vertical farming, which has made locally grown produce and earth friendliness into a movement as well as a business, the latest development in urban gardening comes from the Netherlands.
It all springs from a fact that is so obvious as to be almost banal: 71% of the earth's surface is covered with water and of this 97% is made up of oceans. So why not exploit these immense unutilised areas to build floating farms?
In Rotterdam, a project beyond the concept of “urban farm”
Imagine a specific area in one of the most important European port cities. Then imagine seeing a multi-story floating platform able to supply the city with local produce without occupying as much as a hectare of land.
What you see is the project created by Beladon, who specialise in floating constructions, in collaboration with the Dutch food farming institute Courage and the Uit Je Eigen Stad, which manages urban farms in Rotterdam.
But what makes this project different, for instance, from that of Singapore? "Our project is a further development of the urban farm concept," explains Minke van Wingerden, a company partner. "Here, we do not just grow vegetables: the farm can actually supply us with very fresh milk, cheese, butter and yogurt, all produced on the spot. Anyone can go along to the ‘field’ and buy whatever they need, seven days a week, and visit the farm at the same time.
"This project is able to satisfy the food requirements of big cities because it is modular and may easily be extended in height and width. We are convinced that it can provide an answer to an ever growing demand for food in a world whose population continues to increase, as well as being a winning formula for reducing pollution."
In practical terms, this means that not only are solar panels and wind turbines used to power the farm, but all rainwater will be reused and the cows’ urine will not be simply disposed of, but purified to irrigate the grass of the floating fields. Even manure will be recovered and used by farms in the city outskirts.
In brief, a perfect example of circular economy that is already paving the way for further initiatives – greenhouses for growing vegetables and breeding farmyard animals such as egg-laying hens, also in Rotterdam and with the same players. “Before that happens, though, we need to complete the pilot project which will be finished and handed over to the city in November 2017,” van Wingerden points out.
And where there is no water available?
"Our floating farm concept," the company executives explain, "is easy to replicate wherever there is water. On a lake, for instance or a river system. Even where water is scarce or the stretch of water is insufficient, we can build vertically on dry land to occupy less space, which can then be allocated to other activities.”
"The Catalan project has not got off the ground yet," Minke tells us. "We are, however, in contact with its creators.” Beladon could in fact join forces with the Spanish designers, whose floating farm has been conceived for growing vegetables using hydroponic techniques (on intermediary floors), fish farming (on “ground” level), comprising fish egg nurseries and energy production by solar panels (roofing), where rainwater could also be collected.
Where, on the other hand, there is plenty of water and sheltered space
Have you ever heard of a project by a London-based student who suggests exploiting cargo ships for creating itinerant vegetable farms? According to Philippe Hohlfeld of London's Royal College of Art (RCA) over 70% of consumer goods are now transported by sea (from Asia to the rest of the world and back).
More often than not, the cargo ships are empty on their return voyage. “And so," the student poses the question to the press, "why not transform the empty containers into hydroponic vegetable farms?" This idea, dubbed Grow Frame suggests putting 13 million containers to good use, which otherwise would transport nothing but air.
And then we have the sea depths
While Hohlfeld is still seeking funds to get his prototype off the ground, in Italy’s bay of Noli (near Savona) the first underwater farm is already operational, housed in special glasshouses (looking like transparent vinyl bubbles) positioned at a depth of eight to 10 metres.
This initiative, based on an idea conceived by Sergio Gamberini of the Ocean Reef Group, a company specialising in the production of underwater equipment, located in California as well as Liguria, has made it possible to farm in the undersea space in front of the bay, thanks to eight biospheres. Nemo’s Garden, as the project is called, was implemented in 2012 and in late 2016 it was possible to taste the fruits of the first basil grown under the sea.
Incidentally, starred chef Davide Pezzuto (of the Heinz Beck school), has introduced it to the menu of the D.one ristorante diffuso in Montepagano (Teramo). Foodies and chefs agree that this basil has sublime aromatic properties. Without forgetting that it is 100% organic: parasites are unable to penetrate the sea depths and consequently there is no need for pesticides.
But you may be wondering how the glasshouses work. During the day, the temperature of the air contained in the biospheres increases by a few degrees and, since the sea water is colder, condensation forms inside the sphere and trickles down the walls in the form of freshwater.
Besides, since the daytime and night-time temperatures do not vary greatly, the temperature within the biospheres remains constantly around 25°C. The results have been so positive that Gamberini and partners have been induced to start growing thyme, oregano, strawberries, peas, garlic, lettuce and nasturtiums.