Rotterdam’s floating farms reduce environmental harm

Rotterdam has two major assets: its delta location and innovative spirit. Peter van Wingerden, CEO and partner at Beladon, talks to us about a new floating farm project that will combine the two

An artist's impression of one of the Floating Farms. The initiative will reduce demands on the world's scarce agricultural land. Image: Beladon

Rotterdam has a character and attitude of reinvention. Its people (‘Rotterdammers’) have embraced new ideas and innovation, with an ethos of ‘boldly going where none has gone before’ and ‘making things happen’. This character and attitude have historical roots: Rotterdam was heavily bombarded during the Second World War; almost the entire city centre was wiped out. Adapting to a changing reality was then a necessity: now it is a character trait and mentality.

Located near the sea and on main rivers, Rotterdam has always relied upon water for business. Now more than ever, with resources such as land, energy and food becoming scarcer, water has become an important option to be explored; it offers not only opportunities for distribution, but also increasing potential as a resource for energy and food production. When it comes to agro-food, the greater Rotterdam area is the largest transport hub in Europe, with the Greenports of Westland, Midden Delfland and Barendrecht close by.

There is a global decline in the availability of good, healthy, farmable land

Among the exciting innovations originating in and around Rotterdam are technologically advanced farms, floating on the water. These make food production both more sustainable and less reliant upon increasingly scarce farmland. The New Economy spoke to Peter van Wingerden, CEO and partner at Beladon, and one of the initiators and partners of the Floating Farm concept.

Why is the city sometimes seen as a circular economy?
The production and distribution processes of Rotterdam and the port mean there is a lot of waste in the forms of energy, heat, polluted water, biomass, and waste materials. In times when resources are becoming scarcer and people are accepting the need to think and behave more responsibly, there is a shift in thinking of these materials as not only waste but also as potential resources in the production and consumption cycle.

What do you hope to achieve with the Floating Farm project?
The Floating Farm is about designing a highly sustainable farm, based on a technological concept that is new to the agro-food industry. It includes a combination of factors such as the need for animal fodder (biomass), land usage, water needs and the processing of animal waste such as urine and manure. The Floating Farm is also designed to reduce the logistical chain, allowing production and distribution to be closer to the end consumers. Lastly, designing a modern, transparent building that is in the vicinity of the consumer, rather than in a far-off production plant, will allow us to show visitors (particularly children) what healthy food is all about and how it’s produced.

What challenges will the Floating Farm project help overcome?
This is about finding solutions for land usage, water demand and processing waste. There is a global decline in the availability of good, healthy, farmable land due to salinisation, rising sea levels and desertification. Reducing waste is no longer enough to counter these developments: we have to find new ways of production and distribution. As more than 70 percent of our planet’s surface is covered by water, we must start looking there for options and solutions.

From a technological standpoint, how does the Floating Farm work?
The concept requires a number of unique and innovative technological concepts. We have an artificial, permeable, soft floor on which the cows walk. With 15 square metres per cow, they have plenty of space. The floor has been specially designed to separate urine and manure. By separating these waste materials they can be better treated, allowing us to process them into their next stages while also overcoming the massive production of ammoniac in the stable.

The urine is collected in a distillation unit, where nutrients are extracted. The dry manure is picked out by a manure robot, distilled and then partly transformed into burning blocks to create energy and heat for the processes on board, and partly into plant feed. This plant feed is then distributed around the city. We also produce plant feed for the cows in our own floating construction.

Together with partners such as the University of Wageningen and Philips, we are working on light recipes and seed selections to produce biomass in the dark with a fraction of the ground needed in the regular way. We also work closely together with the companies in the Rotterdam Innovation District to create sustainable circularity and testing of the stable floating platforms.

What is the sustainable and commercial potential of the Floating Farm?
By producing animal fodder within the floating construction, our land usage is only a fraction of what is normally needed for this type of production. The entire production process is located on the water, meaning we reduce our claim on already scarce farmable land. By locating the production process close to the end consumers, we shorten the logistical chain and simultaneously reduce waste. If we take less time to get the products to the customer, the shelf life of the product increases. This floating concept can be implemented anywhere in the world, as long as there’s water.

Why in Rotterdam?
Realising the first Floating Farm in Rotterdam, the agro-food delta of Europe, was the logical choice for us because of the positive business and knowledge climate, and, of course, the perfect location on sea and major rivers. In 2016 it will be a showcase for Dutch innovation at the World Dairy Summit, which will be held in our city.

What significance does the World Dairy Summit have for Rotterdam?
It will be a very important event, with over 2,000 CEOs and engineers from the dairy sector visiting Rotterdam to discuss and explore new and improved ways of producing dairy products. It will be a true showcase for the Dutch and Rotterdam innovative spirit, and sectoral and technological expertise.

What are your ambitions?
It is our ambition to continually innovate and develop new ways of production and distribution on and around our floating farms in Rotterdam, and to offer the results to the world as practical solutions and useable products.

Rotterdam is innovation-orientated and has a ‘can do’ mentality. The city is home to many innovative companies, big and small. Together with top-rank knowledge and education institutes in or close to the city, such as the Erasmus University Rotterdam and the Delft University of Technology, this makes for a buzzing, smart and highly innovative climate. The Floating Farm is a figurehead for the Rotterdam way of making things happen.

World Dairy Summit

The biannual IDF World Dairy Summit is the world’s main dairy event. Every other year, global dairy specialists and decision-makers gather at this event to participate in a series of topical scientific-technical conferences, social events and technical tours. The event is about networking and familiarising attendees with the latest research findings.

In 2016, the World Dairy Summit will be held in Rotterdam, showcasing the entrepreneurship, innovation and international orientation that underpin the competitive position of the dairy sector. The aim is to facilitate dialogue with stakeholders of the global dairy sector, including views from outside, on how dairy can sustainably contribute to feeding nine billion people.