If you are a traditional farmer, you’ll need water and energy to grow your produce. And you’ll need lots of it. The challenge is that they are finite resources that are becoming ever scarcer. Our solution? Not to use them!

Sundrop’s website bulges of this kind of statements. It is clear that the South Australia-based farm is pretty proud of their achievements over the last six years. In cooperation with an international team of scientists, they developed a commercial farm that runs on solar power and seawater. Yes, you read that right: they are producing tomatoes with just salt water from the nearby Spencer Gulf and the energy captured by a solar power plant.

The concentrated solar power plant has a capacity close to 40 MW, providing the energy for the desalination of seawater and the greenhouses’ needs (photo: Solardrop)

On October 6th, the new farm was inaugurated, after two years of construction. The farm covers 20 hectares of arid land with greenhouses where now plants flourish that will produce an estimated 17 000 tons of tomatoes every year.

Let’s break down how they are going to do that. The heart of the farm is a 40 MW thermal solar power plant. It consists of 23 000 mirrors that focus the sun rays into one point in a solar tower, heating up a salt solution to extremely high temperatures. This in its turn is used to produce steam which drives a turbine to generate electricity which is used to run the desalination plant and the electricity needs of the greenhouses.

To make things even better, the seawater is also used for air treatment, eliminating the need for potentially harmful pesticides. And to go truly sustainable, Sundrop proudly claims not having imported any fertile soil to that bare corner of Australia. Instead, the tomato plants stand with their feet in coconut husk. Now that is all very nice -I’m just wondering if that is really more sustainable.

Bite into a Sundrop tomato and your taste buds will tell you that it has become possible to grow mouth-wateringly delicious fruit and vegetables in a desert.

Overview of Sundrop's greenhouse farm (graph: Sundrop)

Overview of Sundrop’s greenhouse farm (graph: Sundrop)

With fresh water scarcity a growing concern around the world and global food supplies being stressed, it is no surprise that I read half a dozen articles cheering over Sundrop farms’ achievement. And I have to admit that what they did is pretty neat. On their website, Sundrop announces that it will soon bring the delicious taste of their pesticide and genetic free tomatoes to Portugal and the US as well, where similar farms are being set up.

Unfortunately, there are always two sides to a coin. Litteraly. As bolt as the philosophy behind the project, is the initial investment that was required to get it started. 100 billion dollars was raised through external investors, the other 100 billion was obtained by Sundrop farms itself. They promise the farm will pay back itself on the long-run, not needing fresh water supply or energy from fossil fuels to run. I am willing enough to believe them.

We believe that our sustainable production methods are the future of agriculture. Tomorrow’s world is a delicious one.

Sundrop's farm is expected to yield 17000 tons of tomatoes every year (photo: TransContinental)

Sundrop’s farm is expected to yield 17000 tons of tomatoes every year (photo: TransContinental)

And then there is always that little guy in the back of my head that starts yelling when I come across yet another acclaimed world saving innovation. Because is this kind of farming really going to solve food poverty? First of all, the number of countries where concentrated solar power makes commercial sense is limited. Secondly, and more important, instead of locking our plants up in carefully controlled greenhouses, many argue we should put our efforts in developing crops that can cope with the harsher climate that climate change is preparing for us (by the way, people are already working on that, but we need more). Last but not least, if we truly want to address food poverty, a 200 billion dollar tomato farm is not going to be very popular in poorer countries.

It is a bit like crushing a garlic clove with a sledgehammer. We don’t have problems growing tomatoes in Australia.

Paul Kristiansen from the University of New England in Australia told the New Scientist that there was not much point in using solar energy production facilities to grow fruit and vegetables. “It is a bit like crushing a garlic clove with a sledgehammer.” He added, “We don’t have problems growing tomatoes in Australia.” Although the results of the scientific work that proceeded the construction of this farm are very interesting and useful, it doesn’t mean that it is common sense to start implementing it right of the bat.

What do we take away from this? Yes, it is perfectly possible to grow vegetables and fruit in very bare conditions and with seawater, given that you are lucky with the numbers of sun hours. But unfortunately the initial investment is so high it has little chance to stop food poverty in the near future.

Further reading and sources

Sundrop’s website

Quartz article

MNN article

MIT Technology review