Food & Drink

Netherlands floating farm paves way for self-sustainable agriculture – could China be next?

  • The world’s first floating dairy farm in Rotterdam will help the Dutch city produce more of its own food
  • Company behind it is in talks with authorities in China, seeing it as a sustainable solution to swelling populations

Tamara Thiessen UPDATED :

Cows are not known for their love of water, but one Dutch engineer is out to change that. Of the many challenges Peter van Wingerden faced in his plan for a floating dairy farm in the Port of Rotterdam, one was to ensure cows didn’t suffer from seasickness.

“What we found was that cows can become seasick, but the risk is low,” says Van Wingerden, who has been working with his wife, Minke, since 2012 to develop the farm through their company, Beladon. “The floating farm is completely stabilised; there’s no movement at all, so there will be no seasick cows,” he says.

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“We had to prove that there would be not too much smell and noise, and no water pollution,” Minke Van Wingerden adds.

Animal welfare, waste management and measures to stop a capsize during a storm had to be considered before the farm – complete with pastures and barns – could be floated in Rotterdam’s western port of Merwehaven. Costing 2.6 million (US$3 million), the farm is anchored to the sea floor and is expected to open by the end of the year.

A herd of 40 French Montbeliarde cows will live on the 10,760-square foot farm and are expected to produce high-quality yogurt and cheese for the local market.

Dutch engineer Peter van Wingerden.

The Dutch are no strangers to urban farming, but this innovative approach to traditional agriculture aims to protect the environment by reducing food miles – the distance food is transported from when it is produced until it reaches the consumer – and increasing self-sufficiency.

The triple-decker floating farm answers the urgent need to reinvent agricultural techniques to produce fresh food within the city, says Van Wingerden.

“With a spiralling global population, this brings the food source closer to consumers and leaves the limited amount of available space on land intact. We need the biodiversity on the land … but we also want to be close to the consumer to play an educational role,” he says.

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For that reason, the concept is grabbing attention in China and Hong Kong. Van Wingerden says Beladon is in talks with companies and city authorities in Hong Kong and the Chinese city of Chengdu about exporting floating farms. It is too early to disclose details, he adds, “because we have not yet closed a deal”.

Hong Kong- and Zhongshan-based technology entrepreneur Cyrus Hui is one of the Van Wingerdens’ intermediaries, working with Beladon on business development in China.

“We have conducted seminars and project presentations to a number of parties introducing the concept, including one in Zhuhai [in China’s southern Guangdong province] as part of its tourism master plan within the Greater Bay Area development,” says Hui, who advises governments and businesses in China on the development of green agricultural technologies.

Minke van Wingerden at the partially built farm.

“There is much interest in urban farming involving hydroponics in Hong Kong, but it’s all at an early stage,” he adds. Hydroponic farming uses mineral nutrient solutions in water in place of soil.

Such projects do not come to fruition quickly. In the relatively green-friendly Netherlands, Beladon had to fight to win the approval of the public and local government for the farm. The opposition they faced was largely not on environmental grounds.

“We did have many critics, though very few with green concerns,” Van Wingerden says. “The permits are based on strict environmental requirements and we meet all those.” Most opposition, he says, came from a fear of the unknown and concerns over a lack of regulation.

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The farm is a more efficient alternative to traditional Dutch methods of reclaiming land – by building up dykes and pumping in sand, according to Bart Roeffen, a Rotterdam-based “water pioneer” and architect at Blue21.

“With floating structures there is no loss of habitat for the species living there,” says Roeffen. “If designed properly, they can actually provide new habitats for humans while improving the existing marine ecosystem.”

Roeffen says marine environments have to be taken into account if sustainability is the goal. The Beladon farm seems to do that. Described by the city as “a living lab for alternative agriculture in the Port of Rotterdam”, it adheres to the “circular economy” principle that emphasises ecological design, waste prevention and recycling.

Each cow will enjoy 160 sq ft of grazing space – on grass grown under LED lights – to produce 350 litres of milk a year. The cows’ waste will be used as fertiliser for other urban farms, with manure gathered by a robot and urine collected in the specially designed floor. Robots will also be involved in the milking process.

Farms on water – if well designed – provide agricultural protection from flooding and are climate-change resilient, says Roeffen.

For unprotected areas, outside the dykes, floating structures provide a safe and climate-robust solution
Bart Roeffen

Beladon is planning an international roll-out for the scheme, also targeting Singapore. The reason it has sparked interest from Chinese authorities is partly because of the many low-lying river deltas in China (deltas have a high flood risk and are affected by weather extremes, worsening with climate change).

Another reason is that “cities are growing and growing”, says Van Wingerden. “The relationship with healthy food is getting farther away from citizens. We have to reconnect them again.”

The hurricane-resistant, small-scale global pilot is fully scalable and reproducible, he adds. This presents a promising answer to global population and environmental problems. The world’s population is tipped to grow from 7.6 billion to 8.5 billion by 2030, according to the United Nations. And with that comes the need for more food.

“Many countries want to be self-sufficient in food production, and also in food education and food quality … and we know climate change is affecting many cities,” says Van Wingerden.

The company is also working on designs for floating poultry farms and vertical greenhouses, similarly harnessing cutting-edge, eco-friendly agricultural technology, which the company hopes will also find favour in China.

The waterborne dairy farm is one of a flotilla of sustainable floating wonders in Rotterdam. A new, futuristic-looking bubble, the Drijvend Paviljoen (Floating Pavilion), was designed as an exhibition and event centre by DeltaSync and Public Domain Architects – two other firms prominent in the field of floating urbanisation.

Composed of three half spheres, the pavilion is fully mobile, and after five years, it will float from its current location, on the south bank of the Nieuwe Maas River, to a new home.

Roeffen, who was involved in the research and development for it, says this “pilot and catalyst for floating developments” represent a Dutch marriage of experimental and sustainable measures with aesthetics made in heaven.

“This type of development presents an opportunity for Rotterdam to bridge the gap between port and city – land and water – while creating an attractive work and living environment in the historic port area,” he says. “For unprotected areas like this, outside the dykes, floating structures provide a safe and climate-robust solution.”

The new Drijvend Paviljoen (Floating Pavilion).

There’s further enticement for China. Since July, a mass of recycled plastic waste salvaged from the Nieuwe Maas River has been used to create a flourishing Recycled Park on Rotterdam’s harbour.

The project’s brainchild, Ramon Knoester, wanted to turn the scourge of the seas into something beautiful and life-giving.

“So far the plastics have been recycled into a 1,500 sq ft floating platform to form a new green environment, rather than reaching the North Sea and becoming part of the plastic soup, which is an environmental disaster,” he says. “The waste is caught with litter traps placed at strategic points along the river bank and retrieved by volunteers.

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“These floating parks are a plus for the city of Rotterdam. The building blocks are designed in such a way that not only can nature grow on top, but they provide a new ecosystem for regenerating river life, as the base of the platforms is designed to provide plants with a surface to grow on and fish a place to hatch their eggs.”

Rotterdam is not alone in its floating forays. Barcelona’s Smart Floating Farms is also having a stab at solar energy plants, hydroponics, and aquaculture at sea – something Hong Kong is no stranger to with its floating fish farms. Meanwhile, this year, China’s Anhui province opened a large floating solar plant on a lake that was once a coal mine.

A mass of recycled plastic waste has morphed into a flourishing park that graces Rotterdam’s harbour.

Dutch determination is blurring the lines between traditional on- and offshore urban spaces as the Netherlands sails towards a future with floating habitats.

In September, a new international committee was announced to deal with UN climate issues. The Global Commission on Adaptation will be led by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, World Bank head Kristalina Georgieva and former UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

Its home? An energy-neutral floating building in Rotterdam’s Rijnhaven, for which a design competition will be launched in early 2019.