Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Thanet Earth

What is Thanet Earth? Thanet Earth is the largest greenhouse in the UK. Located in Kent, the Garden of England, Thanet Earth is a 220-acre complex with 7 greenhouses, each of them the size of 10 football pitches. For now, only 3 greenhouses have been constructed; the 4 others should be completed in August 2010.

Thanet Earth will grow 2.5 million tomatoes per week every week of the year; 560,000 peppers and 700,000 cucumbers will also be picked every week between February and October, boosting the British production of this produce by 15%, and creating 550 new jobs.

The plants will be grown hydroponically, i.e. in nutrient-rich water instead of soil, hanging from the 26ft-high ceiling (8m). The computer-controlled system will ensure the same light and heat are maintained year-round. All surfaces will be painted white to maximize the sunlight reflection (workers will have to wear sunglasses). With these optimal conditions, plants are expected to grow 2 to 4 times faster than normal.

Each greenhouse will have its own combined heat and power plant. The generated 32MW will provide power for Thanet Earth and 50,000 homes, partly offsetting the costs of the facility. Part of the CO2 emitted from gas combustion will be sent back into the greenhouses to be consumed by the plants. 50 million gallons of water will be stored in 7 reservoirs on site, partly coming from rainwater collection, and partly from recycling the water used to grow the plants.

Thanet Earth claims to be more efficient in heat and water than traditional culture. It also aims at reducing the CO2 emissions associated with “food miles”, a concept that emerged in the 1990s when we realized that our food traveled half more than 25 years before. Food is being imported and transported from all over the world today.

Some think Thanet Earth is the future. Some other people do not welcome this type of agriculture, already common in the Netherlands for example. Real food campaigners argue that the food is tasteless, that the greenhouses deteriorate the landscape, and that the land could be used to cultivate vegetables the traditional – natural? – way.

I am curious to hear what you guys think. The figures associated with Thanet Earth are pretty impressive and the reduction in CO2 emissions seems appealing. Yet I have to acknowledge that I am kind of scared when I think of vegetables being grown in these “white chambers”. Is that our future for food?


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