When Hurricane Sandy hit the United States and Caribbean in 2012 it caused an estimated $70 billion worth of damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure. But it also gave birth to an idea that offers a radical approach to fresh food production and a potential new weapon in the fight against climate change.
Peter and Minke van Wingerden were in Manhattan to see the damage first hand seven years ago, noting how the increase in severe weather events was putting food supply in jeopardy as the resultant floods led to paralysed supply chains and empty shelves. It was at that moment that the Dutch couple came to believe that the whole approach to agricultural production needed to change, and that fresh food needs to be produced close to urban areas to avoid damaging supply gaps in future.
Fast-forward to 2019 and the Van Wingerdens are a few months into making that dream a reality. Their Floating Farm, located in the Port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is described as a world first, producing milk from 32 cows on an offshore platform, milked by robots and all sold locally. The public are encouraged to come and visit as a way of reconnecting people with food production and educating children about where milk comes from.
Animal welfare is central to the project. Compassion in World Farming points out that cows in intensive farms can suffer from hard floors, lack of space and poor ventilation, all of which contributes to injury and disease. To address these issues, on the Floating Farm the cows each have their own stalls and are also given the opportunity to roam in a nearby field. Rubber flooring is more comfortable for their hooves, and plants and greenery make for a more natural environment, along with the airier conditions that come with being located on the water.
Co-founder Minke van Wingerden describes the site as an “innovation lab”, trialling different concepts to make it more environmentally friendly, with recent additions being solar panels to power the farm and a rainwater purification system to give the cows fresh drinking water. “It is not yet fully sustainable on energy, but we try to be as circular and sustainable as we can,” she explains, adding that the cows’ manure is used to produce a natural fertiliser.
There are big plans for the future. The business is in the process of moving into yoghurt production, and designs are being drawn up to extend the concept into chicken, as well as fresh produce via vertical farming.
The Floating Farm is well placed in a country particularly open to conceptual agricultural production - the Netherlands already has the radical Kipster project, which claims to produce the world’s first carbon-neutral eggs; the low-impact, roundhouse Rondeel poultry farm; as well as a recently-secured agreement by supermarkets to pay banana suppliers a ‘living wage’.
It might feel like an idealistic project, but Van Wingerden insists that the maths stack up. “We had to attract shareholders, and of course they have a green heart but are also interested in the business case,” she says.
That business case includes being able to defend the concept against wider criticism of the dairy industry and its role in climate change. Critics point to the high levels of methane generated by mass dairy production, as well as the fact that 40 per cent of the world’s cereal grain is used to feed cattle, according to a study in Nature. A recent counter argument focuses on the carbon benefits if cows are switched to a grass-fed diet, though that’s less of a factor with the Floating Farm.
Van Wingerden stresses that one of the project’s major benefits is that by not using scarce agricultural ground the business does not contribute to the intensive agri-industry land grab, while a key selling point of siting the facility near to consumers is that it reduces so-called ‘milk miles’.
Then there’s the feed that the cows eat, which does not drain other precious resources. “We feed our cows from residual products from the local brewery, bran from the mill next door, grass from the soccer fields and potato peel from the local French fry industry,” Van Wingerden explains. The point is that it all adds up to a circular, holistic approach that is more sustainable and kinder on the environment.
“It’s amazing how much international interest there has been,” she says. “But of course this is such a small scale – a larger scale is far more attractive than this as a business proposition. We have to show the world that we can do it and we are now attracting global investors who are willing to make a tiny farm like this on a bigger scale in another part of the world. I think we could see many floating farms in the coming years.”
Floating farms may not replace ‘big agriculture’ any time soon, but as the approach is honed and developed on a larger scale, it could offer much-needed relief for the world’s under-pressure farmland. And as the frequency of extreme weather events increases, its shorter supply chain and circular energy loop offers an interesting alternative model to keep shelves stocked during unexpected crises.