Hydroponic farming is coming to the U.K.—70 soccer fields worth of it.
Outside of Birchington in far southeastern England, workers are finishing the first of what will be seven giant greenhouses for growing tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Thanet Earth, as the complex is cleverly called, will cover around 220 acres of Kent County by its 2010 completion, according to the Daily Mail. In the greenhouses, plants will hang from a 26-foot-high ceiling. A drip will supply them with water, and also the nutrients they need and would normally take from soil, like potassium, magnesium, phosphate, and nitrogen. Greenhouse operators will deploy bees to pollinate the plants, and wasps to keep pests like aphids from wrecking their rows and rows of produce.
It’s not hard to see the practical reasons why Britons would go hydroponic: Thanet Earth’s proponents say the £80 million (approximately $160 million) project will produce 2.5 million tomatoes every week. That’s not bad for a country used to importing much of its produce—the BBC says half of the U.K.’s fruit and 95 percent of its vegetables come from abroad.
But not everyone is so thrilled. While the sun supplies much of the energy for normal agriculture, growing hydroponic crops year-round could be an energy glutton. You have to shine artificial light on tomatoes to trick them into growing in February, and 220 acres is a lot of artificial light. Growing hydroponic plants should save water compared to soil farming, but there’s also a lot of good soil now buried beneath glass and concrete, and any archaeologists who many have wanted to excavate the historical area are out of luck.
British foodies aren’t terribly happy with this trend, either. Where’s the culinary romance in a factory-grown cucumber? In the Daily Mail story, Jeanette Longfield of the food campaign group Sustain brings up the French word “terroir,” which means the specific traits a food gets from its soil and environment and is often used to start arguments about wine. Hydroponic tomatoes all have the same terroir, she argues, or none at all.
Lastly, we wrote earlier this week about the origins of the current salmonella scare in American tomatoes, and Keith Warriner of the University of Guelph in Ontario told DISCOVER that it was actually easier for pathogens to establish themselves in the hydroponic greenhouse compared to the field. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, salmonella can enter a hydroponic facility on tools, water, or workers’ clothing. So it seems that tightly-controlled greenhouse might not be so easy to control after all.
Image: Giancarlo Dessì