John Craven’s last word – High-rise farms

John Craven's monthly musings on rural affairs and country matters

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High-rise farms
While an orangutan swung high in the trees and zebras grazed nearby, I caught a glimpse of the future. I was being shown round a high-tech glasshouse where some of the animals’ favourite foods were ready for picking, with not a speck of soil in sight. Paignton Zoo in Devon is the first in the world to feed its animals with vegetables and fruit produced by a new type of hydroponics. The zoo and its botanical gardens are a test bed for a technique that grows plants in trays stacked high on a rotating conveyor system. It passes them through a computerised system where they are given precisely the right amount of water and nutrients – no land and no earth needed!
Could this be a way of guaranteeing food security in years to come, for humans as well as animals? The idea of vertical horticulture is nothing new (think of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon) but modern hydroponics might help to solve the greatest challenge facing our planet: providing enough to eat in a world of diminishing natural resources. Perhaps it’s not too fanciful to suppose it could lead to a new kind of farm that is unaffected by climate change, flooding and insects. With conditions carefully controlled, seasons would be eliminated along with international food miles, because almost any type of crop could be produced there, at any time of year.
The indoor water farms could just as easily be built in urban areas as in the countryside. In fact, it would make more sense, environmentally and economically, for them to be in the midst of large centres of population. And by adapting the nutrients, they could provide either conventional or organic produce – though under current rules this system can’t be classed as organic in the UK because, ironically, no soil is involved!
But why stop at horticulture? Already some are talking about livestock farms in skyscrapers. For now though, it’s the animals at Paignton Zoo who are feeling the benefits of year-round fresh supplies of herbs, leaf vegetables and fruits. The curator of plants and gardens there, Kevin Frediani, told me: “We are making history. In our specially built glasshouse we can grow more plants in less room using less water and less energy, and it’ll bring down our annual food bill of around £200,000 a year.”
The vertical growing system, being developed by a Cornish-based company, is so eco-friendly that even the matting the plants grow on can be fed to the animals when its usefulness is over. And Paignton’s two elderly elephants certainly won’t forget the new feeding system. They had to move to a different enclosure to make way for it.
 
The need for speed
It’s good to see pressure growing to improve the frankly appalling broadband service in many rural areas. It’s estimated that at least two million country dwellers have speeds slower than 2Mbits per second. The snail’s pace of this vital technology is hampering businesses, schools and many essential services.
Recently joining the protest are the Prince of Wales – who’s written about the ‘broadband deserts’ of rural Britain – and the Rural Coalition of six leading organisations, which is urging politicians to heed the needs of the countryside in the run-up to the general election. Westminster has promised that everyone will have speeds of at least 2Mbits/s by 2012. We shall see.
 
Squirrel saviour
The picture of a red squirrel with a snowdrop on its nose that adorns the cover of the 2010 Countryfile calendar is a winner. Its success underlines the deep affection we have as a nation for one of our most threatened native species. So it is welcome news that scientists have started a pioneering project that could ensure its long-term survival. Over the last two years, a colony of reds on Merseyside has been devastated by a pox carried by grey squirrels, which are immune to it themselves.
Ever since greys were introduced from North America more than 100 years ago, red squirrels have been on the run. On Merseyside, 90 percent of reds in some areas fell victim to the virus but now, surprisingly, numbers have stabilised and scientists from Liverpool University are wondering if there has been a breakthrough. Have some of the surviving reds built up immunity?
“Our first priority is to see whether they are carrying antibodies to squirrel pox,” says Professor Mike Begon. “Then, further down the line, if we find out something about how the virus spreads we’ll be in a much stronger position to help protect red squirrels.”
 

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