Wed, Nov 28, 2012 - Page 9 News List

The agricultural revolution takes hold

Philipp Saumweber is creating a miracle in the barren Australian outback, growing tonnes of fresh food. So why has he fallen out with the pioneering environmentalist who invented the revolutionary system?

By Jonathan Margolis  /  The Observer

However, we will return to Paton later; sadly, perhaps, developments in the South Australian desert are now overshadowing the doubts and travails of their original inspiration. And they are quite some developments.

“These guys have been bold and adventurous in having the audacity to think that they could do it,” says Neil Palmer, chief executive officer of Australia’s government-funded National Centre of Excellence in Desalination. “They are making food without risk, eliminating the problems caused not just by floods, frost, hail but by lack of water, too, which now becomes a non-issue. Plus, it stacks up economically and it’s infinitely scalable — there is no shortage of sunshine or seawater here. It’s all very impressive.”

“The sky really is now the limit,” says 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.”

An unexpected bonus of the Sundrop system is that the vegetables produced, while cropping year-round and satisfying the supermarkets’ demand for blemish-free aesthetic perfection, can also be effectively organic. It cannot be called organic (in Australia at least) because it is grown “hydroponically” — not in soil — but it is wholly pesticide-free, a selling point the Australian supermarkets are seizing on, and apparently fed only benign nutrients. Sundrop is already being sold in local greengrocers in Port Augusta as an ethically and environmentally friendly high-end brand.

Because there is no shortage of desert in which to site it, a Sundrop greenhouse can be built in isolation from others and be less prone to roving pests. Those that sneak in can be eliminated naturally. In this closeted micro-world, Pratt with his trusty iPhone app is free to play God. Not only does Dave have a flight of in-house bees to do their stuff in the greenhouse (who also live a charmed life as they enjoy a perfect, Dave-controlled climate with no predators), but he also has at his command a platoon of “beneficial insects” called Orius, or pirate bugs. These kill crop-destroying pests called thrips, and do so — weirdly in nature — not for food but for, well, fun. So unless you feel for thrips, or believe food should only be grown in God’s own soil and subject to God’s own pestilences, Sundrop produce seems to be pure and ethical enough to satisfy all but the most eco-fussy.

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