Let's hope cows don't get seasick.
The city of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is about to become home to the world's first floating dairy farm. An offshore facility is under construction in the Merwehaven harbor and will house 40 cows producing 1,000 litres of milk per day. The farm, which is owned by property company Beladon, might seem like an odd addition to a bustling urban port, but there is some method to the madness, as one might say.
Peter van Wingerden, an engineer at Beladon, came up with the idea after visiting New York City at the time of Hurricane Sandy. Seeing how difficult it was for residents to access food in the wake of the superstorm got him thinking about the importance of shortening the distance food needs to travel from producer to consumer. By situating a farm right in a city, it creates more food security and lessens the environmental impact of transportation.Eighty percent of the cows' diet will come from food waste gathered from Rotterdam's nearby restaurants. The BBC reported:
"That might include grains discarded by local breweries, leftovers from restaurants and cafes, by-products from local wheat mills, and even grass clippings, all collected and delivered in electric trucks provided by local 'green waste' firm GroenCollect."
The rest will be supplemented by plants grown onsite under LED lights, fertilized by the cows' urine. (A special membrane floor allows for drainage and collection of urine.) Crops will include red clover, alfalfa, and grass, as well as duckweed, which Minke van Wingerden, Peter's wife and business partner, says is prime animal feed:
"It is high in protein, fast-growing and can be nurtured with cow urine. We will have an installation of four or five vertical platforms growing the plant under special LED lights."
The cows will have access to pasture, if they cross a gangplank over to the shore, but designer Klaas van der Molen thinks the cows will spend most of their time on the floating farm:
"With 40 cows at 800kg each on a moving body, it has to be more stable and symmetrical. They could all stand on one side. The cow specialist thinks they will spend most time on the floating farm [not in the field], as it’s a cosy area where they have their food, their sheds are there and it has a softened floor.”
Manure will be gathered by robots, and then used either for fertilizer or energy generation onsite; excess will be dispatched to nearby farms. The farm will produce some of its own power, "hydrogen produced through electrolysis powered by solar panels," according to the BBC. And, of course, milk and yogurt will be made in the lower level of the farm and sold for local consumption.
It's an interesting concept. While my initial concerns would be about the risk of manure contamination and odor problems in the harbor, as well as the structure's resilience in the face of a hurricane or other extreme weather event, urban farms do tend to be more efficient than rural farms. Dr. Fenton Beed of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization said, "They use less water, fertiliser, and pesticide than conventional production systems."
With unbuilt land and green space becoming harder to come by and the global population rapidly expanding, alternatives will need to be found for food production. The big question, of course, is whether raising livestock is the smartest use of those limited resources, and whether we should be working to wean people off meat and dairy in order to better feed the world, but that's a conversation for another day. In the meantime, it's interesting to see how thinking outside the box -- or off the land, in this case -- could potentially change farming as we know it.