Australia is Growing Hydroponic Tomatoes with No Fresh Water, Soil, or Fossil Fuels

hydroponic tomatoesIn the desert of Southern Australia, one farm is growing and supplying 15 percent of the country’s tomatoes with no soil, no fresh water, and no fossil fuel.

This miracle of modern science uses solar power to desalinate seawater and grow 15,000 tons of hydroponic tomatoes per year.

“Our concentrated solar tower produces both heat and electricity to maintain the perfect conditions inside the greenhouses to help the plants grow,” Sundrop Farms writes to Al Jazeera. “This heat is also used to desalinate one million liters of seawater a day; the fresh water produced is used to water the plants and cool the greenhouses.”

While no artificial gases are used to ripen the tomatoes, carbon dioxide levels are elevated in the glasshouses to boost crop production by about 30 percent, making this new farm one of the most productive ever.

“This is the future,” Sundrop Farms CEO Philipp Saumweber told The Australian. “Just as the green revolution of the’70s gave us bigger tractors, more seed varieties and better irrigation, I think the next giant leap forward in food production will be the sustainable intensification of farming – doing more with less inputs but on a bigger scale and with greater efficiency.”

Sundrop Farms’ cutting-edge hydroponic technology has been in development for years, but its brand-new 20-hectare complex will avoid about 26,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year — this would coincide with the removal of 500 cars from the roads — as well as the same amount of water as would be contained by 180 Olympic size swimming pools. The farm also saves two million liters of diesel a year and reduces use of pesticides typically applied to conventional produce.

“Sundrop Farm’s innovative protected cropping system utilizes saltwater to ‘scrub’ the air that flows into the company’s greenhouses, minimizing the need for pesticide application,” writes Ag Innovators. “Good” bugs are also introduced to the greenhouse to help control disease and other more serious pests.

Not only does this method allow the farm to save money, it also enables it to guarantee large quantities of fresh produce year-round at a fixed price. It’s no wonder that supermarket chain Coles signed a ten-year contract with Sundrop last year.

So what’s the bad news? The price. The technology took $200 million to install.

That said, the resulting farm has fewer operating costs than a traditional farm, making this technology the ideal choice for countries facing shortages in fresh water and energy supplies, like the harsh, arid area around Spencer Gulf where Sundrop is located, or even parts of the Middle East, Spain, Portugal, the U.S., and Africa.

“If you can farm successfully here, you can farm almost anywhere in the world,” says Saumweber of the rocky, arid area of Australia. “I’m no eco-warrior but I wanted to create a new business model for farming, based on a concept of doing more with less and growing in the most sustainable or restorative manner. This is what we have achieved.”

While the model has yet to be exported — and likely won’t be popping up anywhere with access to fresh water, given the expense — the development of such a program is a harbinger of things to come in the world of sustainable mass food production. And with experts from FAO estimating that there will be one-third more mouths to feed in 2050, this development couldn’t have come at a better time.

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.