Who Needs Soil? Colossal Hydroponic Complex Set to Open in England

By Andrew Moseman | June 13, 2008 4:26 pm

Hydroponic tomatoes will soon be growing in KentHydroponic 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

MORE ABOUT: agriculture
  • Chris Alchin

    I applaud the British on building the hydroponic greenhouses. Why doesn’t the U.S. follow suit-it would reduce reliance on vast quantities of water and soil, and would be perfect to build such plants in large cities, not to mention the number of jobs it would provide.

  • Pippa Moss

    I would be more impressed if these greenhouses were on top of buildings, using ‘waste’ heat and space that is already covered in concrete.

  • Jon Taerog

    Much of the worry here seems to be much about nothing. And seems to focus on only the problems.

    “While the sun supplies much of the energy for normal agriculture, growing hydroponic crops year-round could be an energy glutton”
    They do not have to be year round, not all crops need the same amount of light (tomatoes do need allot) . . it SAVE energy and money from having to import them in the winter months . .etc . . so we have a full spectrum of good to poor ..

    “good soil now buried beneath glass and concrete, and any archaeologists who many have wanted to excavate the historical area are out of luck.”
    This has to be a joke argument. . as archaeologists have a problem with ALL development . . (also these green houses do not require a concrete floor . .thick plastic tarps work just as well . .as shown)

    “foodies aren’t terribly happy “
    Well? They are terribly happy about much anyway so what is the deal? Imported food often has to be picked while still unripe . . this does have a effect on taste and texture . . while “terroir” is much much more subtle and often non existent in some foods (so winter is still a problem for foodies regardless) . . Also some of the cause and effects of “terroir” are being discovered and should be reproducible (much to there horror :) ) . .

    “pathogens”
    Some will be easier some will be harder to control . (ie risk from fertilizer derived from dung is eliminated but contamination from tools, water, or workers’ clothing is no different from traditional and the current problems). but the biggest problem IS the mass production since that is were it can to the most harm (mass contamination rather then small lots of contamination). . . if hydroponic greenhouses are kept as “smaller” separate units . . and they all most have to be since single massive greenhouses are problematic . .then contamination can be minimized if found. So in the end it should be about equal or possibly better.

    All in all this should be a good supplement to current importing . . . . and rather poor arguments to date against it.

  • http://www.eltacnet.com RUBEN GARCIA

    depending of the type of greenhouse and technical equipment, the production can be increased up to 50% minimum and the energy comsuption perfectly controled, generating energy, throuth out biomass, solar and wind power.

    check our web.

  • http://backandneckpain.info Ramon Wichterman

    I always discover posts like this really fascinating, finally gets me considering on things which is a uncommon thing these days. Hope to read extra of your posts quickly and be taught something new every day. carpal tunnel

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