October 25, 2021

Can we eat UK-grown produce all year round, without environmental trade?

A farm in Suffolk is using highly efficient glass house technology to grow tomatoes. Could this be a better way than relying on imports?

Richard Lewis knows his tomatoes. The former director of the British Tomato Growers’ Association has been caring for them since 1984. But now, he is cultivating something special.

Three miles northwest of Apeswich, just beyond the village of Brampford, a neon pink glow can often be seen through the trees. It’s hard to remember یہ it sounds like a wedding disco لیکن but the LEDs are actually coming from the UK’s first semi-closed glass houses. Sterling Suffolk..

Covering 5.6 hectares, these energetic homes use AI technology to improve the growing conditions of tomato plants. This pink glow is a combination of red and blue extra light, designed to enhance crop biomass. Domestically, the hydroponic system feeds the grapes, reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides, and limits water use. So could this be the low-carbon future of edible crop production? Lewis, managing director at Sterling Suffolk, thinks so.

Sustainable food

Is this a low carbon future for edible crop production? Photo: Sterling Suffolk

“There is a current and growing demand for sustainable products in the UK,” said Lewis. With the sector currently responsible for nearly 20 per cent of all UK CO2 emissions, we are far from making it a reality. Are produced but grown under glass, or imported but grown outside? – and the road ahead is still narrow.

“Most farmers want to make things better,” says Lewis, “perhaps the answer is to convince the retailer that we can do it if we pay more for it.” We have the Tesco Finest range for better kindness, for example, but should we have the Tesco Greenest range?

The sector is improving. In the Netherlands, Duijvestijn, a major tomato producer, uses geothermal energy to heat its greenhouses. Thant Earth, which grows peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes in Kent using shared heat and power generators, sends the extra electricity back to the grid.

Most farmers want to make things better, so maybe the answer is to convince the retailer that we can do it if we pay more for it.

As part of this, Sterling Suffolk pollinates its crops using British bees, and uses predatory insects instead of pesticides to control pests. The company’s glass houses are cooled by water from onsite reservoirs. Although gas is used to heat glass houses, Lewis is focused on capturing and reusing its maximum CO2 emissions – currently at least 75%. Tomatoes need CO2 to grow, ripen and produce more. Under such controlled conditions, glass houses will produce about 3,000 to 3,000 tons of tomatoes by 2023 – about 20 percent more than traditional glass houses – and they will do so using 25 percent less energy. Are

However, standing alone is not enough. Lewis believes a common, long-term approach is needed.

“We need to increase our production capacity to avoid the expansion of air freight and overseas transport,” he says. Only 20% of the 500,000 tonnes of tomatoes sold each year in the UK are grown here. Spain and Morocco are among the countries that supply the rest.

Sustainable food

They look red, but Sterling Suffolk tomatoes are actually quite green. Photo: Alexandra Stem

Although it is difficult to compare the emissions of heat-grown tomatoes in the UK, Lewis made some interesting points about the overall environmental impact compared to imported and imported ones. Spanish tomatoes, for example, are grown under plastic tunnels, which need to be replaced every four years. Where there is a shortage of water, farmers discharge it from the Mediterranean, which requires a power plant and more trucks on the road.

“We still need to understand that cheap is not always the best and certainly not the best for the planet,” says Lewis. When a large vine grows tomatoes, we get about 60 kg of tomatoes per square meter. In Spain, you see about 15 kg. Therefore, a lot of land is required to get the same yield.

We need to understand that cheap is not always the best and certainly not the best for the planet.

If the UK wants to deliver on its net zero promises, according to the current National Food Strategy, about 21% of farmland in England will need to be converted. Suffolk glass houses can produce large yields in small spaces, allowing additional land to be rebuilt or used for forest or petland, for example.

“We’re used to eating all kinds of fruits and vegetables whenever we want at prices that are unbearable,” Lewis said. “But we cannot destroy the planet and neglect our responsibilities.”

However, change shines brightly on the horizon.

Main image: Richard Lewis / Sterling Suffolk

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