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

Sundrop’s founder and CEO, on the other hand, is not at first glance an eco-warrior poster child. True, there are plenty of posh boys dabbling in ethical and organic farming, but on paper, Philipp Saumweber could be a comedy all-purpose hate figure. He is a wealthy, Gordonstoun-educated German with a Harvard MBA, immaculate manners, an American accent, Teutonic efficiency and a career that has taken him from hedge-fund management to Goldman Sachs to joining his family’s Munich-based agricultural investment business. However, in the typical way stereotypes can let you down, apart from being a thoroughly nice, softly spoken and clearly visionary man, Saumweber has also made a brilliant but ailing idea work, turning a charmingly British, Amstrad-like technology into the horticultural equivalent of Apple.

Soon after becoming immersed in agriculture as a business, he says, he realized that it essentially involved “turning diesel into food and adding water.”

Whether you were a tree-hugger or a number cruncher, Saumweber reasoned, this was not good.

“So I began to get interested in the idea of saline agriculture. Fresh water is so scarce, yet we’re almost drowning in seawater. I spent a lot of time in libraries researching it, Charlie Paton’s name kept coming up, and that’s what started things. He’d been working on the technology since 1991, was smart and although his approach was obviously home-grown and none of his pilot projects had really worked — in fact they’d all been scrapped — he had something too promising to ignore,” Saumweber said.

Despite having given Paton a large, undisclosed ex-gratia settlement when Sundrop and Seawater divorced in February — a sum Paton still says he was very happy with — Saumweber continues to be gracious about his former business partner, and says he wishes he was still on board, as he is a better propagandist and salesman for this ultimate sustainable technology than anyone else he has met.

CLASH OF STYLES

“What we liked about Charlie’s idea, as did the engineers we got in to assess Seawater Greenhouse, is that it addressed the water issue doubly by proposing a greenhouse which made water in an elegant way and linked this to a system to use seawater to cool the greenhouse,” Saumweber said.

“What we didn’t realize at the start, and I don’t think Charlie ever adjusted to fully, was that even in arid regions, you get cold days and a greenhouse will need heating — hence the gas boiler, which cuts in to produce heat and electricity when it gets cold or cloudy, but which upset Charlie so much because it meant we weren’t 100 percent zero-energy any longer. What Charlie overlooked is that you can grow anything without heat and cooling, but it will be blemished and misshapen and will be rejected by the supermarkets. If you don’t match their standards, you’re not paid. It would be ideal if that weren’t the case, but we can’t take on the challenge of changing human behavior. So in the end, we had very different views on where the business should go. He’d found the perfect platform to keep tinkering and experimenting, while we just wanted to get into production. He’s a very nice man and I share a lot of his eco views, but it wasn’t possible to stay together,” Saumweber said.

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