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Last December the Soyuz TMA-07M launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan; destined for the International Space Station. If the crew passed Earth coordinates 51.3689° N, 1.4189° E, and had happened to gaze out of their spacecraft window, they would have been privy to a curious sight: a 55 hectare greenhouse complex. They would have seen the UK’s largest hydroponics farm; Thanet Earth.

For many, the Thanet Earth project is a glimpse of the future – a beacon of sustainability in a world increasingly depleted of resources and bedevilled by climate change. For others however, Thanet Earth is a blot on the landscape, a signal that big business is coming to a rustic village near you; to pave over our green and pleasant land in a move the Daily Mail reported as being the “insidious creep of factory farming”. So who or what is Thanet Earth and what does it mean for the future of farming?

Thanet Earth is owned by Fresca Group, an umbrella company for seventeen separate fresh-food businesses. Working with a consortium of Dutch growers, four major greenhouses have been built – the first in 2008 – with three still in development. On completion Thanet Earth will cover a massive 91 hectares of land. Thanet, in Kent, was chosen as a location for more than just its pun potential – as the light levels much further north are deemed too weak. Thanet Earth specialises in hydroponically-grown tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Young plants are brought in from specialist nurseries and suspended in rockwool growbags. They use a fully-automated, drip feed system run from a central computer; with programmes specific to each plant type. Many of the tomato plants grow to 15 metres in height – with the base of the plant adjusted for ease of access.

A complex lighting system is used to replicate summer conditions all year round, with blinds trapping light inside during nightfall, and then rolling back during daylight hours. Each greenhouse has its own Combined Heat and Power system, with excess electricity sold to the National Grid. The heat and carbon dioxide by-product of the CHP is then channelled back to the plants rather than released into the atmosphere. Another example of Thanet Earth’s commitment to sustainability is their use of water. Besides the 30% of unused water and feed that is reused, 35 million litres of rainwater is collected on the roof annually – precisely half their water needs.

Thanet Earth also has a naturalistic approach to pest control – using friendly insects to eradicate the less friendly. They also release worker bees into the greenhouses for plant pollination (and perhaps to keep their workers on their toes). They currently produce millions of vine, baby plum, Sunstream and Piccolo tomatoes a week; as well as 700,000 cucumbers and 750,000 sweet, bell and mini peppers. Despite initially sustaining high losses during its early years of operations, Thanet Earth turned a profit for the first time in 2011, and is now finding demand outstripping supply. Tomatoes are grown all year round; cucumbers from February to November; and peppers between March and November.

“What are they [the vegetables] going to taste like if they are grown in water rather than in soil?” – Jeanette Longfield of Sustain

But not everyone is entirely happy with Thanet Earth’s success. The Campaign for Rural England has this to say: “Huge intensive, indoor production units and the equipment they bring with them threaten the landscape and surrounding farmlands. Without animals in fields, we are losing those vital landscape features such as hedgerows, drystone walls and wildlife habitats.” And they’ve been accused by food campaigners of creating bland antifood, of being anti-nature in their wilful ignorance of seasonal farming. Jeanette Longfield of Sustain, was quoted as saying: “What are they [the vegetables] going to taste like if they are grown in water rather than in soil? How is this going to reconnect people with the importance of seasonal food and of experiencing different varieties? This is about producing bland food. French farmers have a word for this – they call it the “terroir” – it’s the special characteristics of the local landscape on the grapes and food they produce. It means that the land – the soil and the local climate – leave their mark on food.”

Its harshest critics, however, must grudgingly accept Thanet Earth’s focus on sustainability (they picked up the accolade of ‘Champion of Sustainable Farm Practice’ at the 2012 Food & Farming Industry Awards) is to be applauded. And their commendable voluntary work with local schools and colleges is earning them friends. The need to cut CO2 emissions is well documented (22% of the UK’s carbon emissions are the fault of our food chain) and even climate change sceptics recognise that sourcing one’s food locally is desirable – the benefit to the economy and the increased freshness of produce is hard to ignore.

Consumers have come to expect a vast array of produce, much of which cannot be grown under local conditions, at all times.

According to a DEFRA report for Wise Moves, British farmers can produce 62% of our country’s needs, yet much of this percentage is exported unnecessarily; we ultimately import double the amount of food we export. Consumers have come to expect a vast array of produce – much of which cannot be grown under local conditions – at all times (i.e. including produce that can be grown locally but is out of season). The cat is out of the bag – even with the best of intentions for the environment, most consumers might find giving up tomatoes during winter time, or bananas altogether, a step too far. So if we wish to keep our nation stocked all year round with its favourite fruit and vegetables, adhering to the Campaign for Rural England’s nostalgic view of rustic fences, skipping lambs and ruddy-faced old farmers chewing straw means the continued importing of produce on its current vast scale. This is ignoring the fact that shortening supply chains is essential for a sustainable future.

Bizarrely, arch-critic of Thanet Earth – Jeanette Longfield – had this to say about vertical urban farming: “…they remove the need for tractors and other fuel dependent equipment. Distances to ship the produce from grower to retailer to consumer are also slashed.” She goes on to say: “Intensive agriculture is currently entirely dependent on fossil fuels, from its use of nitrogen-based fertilisers to mechanical equipment, transport and refrigeration – and so urban agriculture really makes a lot of sense”. In particular, Longfield sees “great potential for perishables that don’t travel well”. All good points that essentially support the work of Fresca Group. Thanet Earth has been intelligent in its use of hydroponics as it allows them to not only produce vegetables out of season, making foreign imports to UK supermarkets (and therefore CO2 spewing freight transportation) less necessary; but also because the nature of hydroponics systems produces “low carbon” food. The indoor, automated aspect of their system means fewer farming vehicles, fewer processes whereby emissions can occur.

Coming back to the flavour argument over whether hydroponically-grown plants compare with conventional, soil-based produce; Dr.Gene A. Giacomelli of the University of Arizona told the NY Times that “we may not know of every nutrient you get from the soil,” adding, “but in a taste test, often you can’t tell the difference between hydroponic and field-grown crops.” Most of Hydromag’s readership will probably confirm this stance. And as Dr. Giacomelli has pointed out; field crops are just as likely to be ‘taste-challenged’ as “they can be affected by too much rain or lack of rain, too much sun or lack of sun” – all problems overcome through the adoption of hydroponic farming methods. The ‘terroir’ belief – that food takes certain characteristics from its environment, and is all the better for it – is extremely hard, if not impossible, to prove.

“We don’t believe you can go north of the Thames in terms of winter light.” – Steve McVicars, former Managing Director of Thanet Earth,

Finally, we come to the accusation that hectares of glass over our landscapes will prove to be an eyesore and damage wildlife habitats. Fresca have worked hard with local conservationists to limit its impact on local species; but as Steve McVicars, the former Managing Director of Thanet Earth, told The Guardian – it’s highly unlikely their model will be rolled out across the hills and valleys of Britain. “We don’t believe you can go north of the Thames in terms of winter light. We’ve got 17% more light down here than you would have towards the Midlands, and that is really crucial.” So until the Earth tilts on its axis and we find our island a few miles further south than usual, the next inhabitants of the International Space Station are unlikely to look down and find Britain a nation of greenhouses.

Thanet Earth, commercial hydroponics, factory farming

This article was originally published in Issue 004 of HYDROMAG (April – May 2013).

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