In twenty years' time, many regions on the world map will turn red in terms of freshwater availability. According to Sander van Golberdinge of Grodan, this will pose an enormous challenge for food production. "This is very alarming, but it also represents a great opportunity for high-tech greenhouse horticulture. In the Gulf region, lack of water is already the main reason for growing in modern greenhouses.”
Substrate supplier Grodan from Roermond has become a partner of the Dutch Greenhouse Delta (DGD) this year. “We can see many opportunities in the Gulf region and the Dutch Greenhouse Delta is helping us to jointly capitalize on them as horticultural suppliers. With the assistance of this unique network, we can offer many product solutions, services, and knowledge for safe and sustainable food solutions worldwide,” says Sander van Golberdinge, Manager Public Affairs of Grodan.
He points out the impact of water on the world: “People don't yet fully realize how great the scarcity of water in the world is going to become. The world population is growing, there is more industry and ever-greater consumption. In twenty years' time, there will be large parts of the world where the amount of water being consumed will exceed the localized availability on a yearly basis.”
Opportunities for greenhouses
The challenge is enormous and even alarming, he believes, “but at the same time, there is a great opportunity for the Dutch greenhouse horticulture sector. More and more countries will be introducing legislation that will demand a more efficient use of water and also limit the environmental impact of water consumption in agriculture and horticulture. Saving water will become an important incentive for choosing high-quality greenhouse horticulture.”
This situation already exists in the Gulf region, where everything hinges on the issue of water. “The states in the Gulf region have hardly any fertile soil, and the extreme climate also hinders agriculture and horticulture. At the same time, the governments in these countries are striving for greater food security and independence. By choosing to grow in high-quality greenhouses, they can grow their own food while using water sparingly."
In recent years, the substrate producer has been involved in various greenhouse horticulture projects in the region, including Al Dahra in the United Arab Emirates and The Green Mast in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Green Mast produces tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, Al Dahra grows tomatoes, among other things, in sustainable greenhouses. “Water consumption depends on the external climate - which can vary considerably even in the Gulf region - and the specific conditions in the greenhouse itself. In order to take these factors into account, we first determine with our customers what the right type of substrate is for their business.”
Water scarcity challenge
With over fifty years of experience in substrate cultivation, Grodan now knows how to use water as sparingly as possible, but research and development are, nonetheless, still ongoing. “We are continuously researching the best irrigation strategy and the optimum use of water,” says Van Golberdinge.
It is well known that cultivating on a substrate enables an economical use of water. For example, a kilo of tomatoes grown on a substrate in a maritime climate can be produced using four liters of water. In an open field, this water requirement can rise to 300 liters in a warm, dry climate. “Our stone wool doesn't retain water and nutrients, so everything is made available to the plant. This property enables growers to collect, purify, and re-use the drain water that flows out, creating a water cycle that is highly efficient. Using the correct cultivation information, you can dose the precise amount of water and fertilizers that the plant needs. This also has a positive impact on water quality and therefore on production.”
Developments in the Gulf region
Outside Europe, the land area devoted to high-performance greenhouses is currently growing by five to six percent, explains Van Golberdinge. He predicts that this growth will continue for some time yet, and not just because of increasing water shortages. “Research across all cultures and regions of the world reveals that too few fresh vegetables are being consumed. At the same time, it appears that, when prosperity increases in a country, the demand for high-quality fresh products also increases. That is an interesting trend for our sector, especially because high-tech greenhouses can always be built close to cities so that the products can be delivered in a very fresh condition.”
According to Van Golberdinge, the Gulf region fits neatly into that picture. “The population is very diverse, with immigrants from Western countries as well as other parts of the world. This migrant community leaves its mark on economic life, but their eating habits also have an impact.”
In many Gulf states, economic diversification is high on the agenda, based on the realization that an economy based purely around oil has had its day. “The development of a local greenhouse horticulture sector is therefore also valuable for these countries,” says Van Golberdinge. “The Dutch Greenhouse Delta has a key role to play in this. It liaises with authorities and investors and gives presentations on the possibilities of our growth solutions. The DGD can properly demonstrate to potential investors what their investments will yield. This helps the market to develop, and in its slipstream suppliers can do business.”
Van Golberdinge explains that Grodan has a different role in the realization of international horticultural projects than, for example, greenhouse builders. “They deliver a turn-key greenhouse facility, but we provide a part of the cultivation system which is purchased by customers on a seasonal basis.”
On the other hand, substrate cultivation entails a great deal of service provision, he points out. “Our business support team provides guidance in managing the crop and answers questions from customers worldwide, for example about root problems or the correct watering strategy. This is how we work together on precision growing.”
Tools developed by Grodan, such as GroSens and e-Gro, help the grower to cultivate more efficiently on a substrate. With GroSens, a grower can continually check the water content and EC value using a handheld meter and sensors in the greenhouse. “Analysis of this data by the grower and our advisors will provide valuable information on aspects such as fruit and root development, plant health, and help optimize the irrigation strategy,” says Van Golberdinge. “Especially in combination with our e-Gro platform, the grower gets the opportunity to cultivate in a data-driven way. Using this platform, we can combine a grower's specific data with other data which results in tailor-made advice on the best watering strategy.”
The technique mentioned can be seen as part of autonomous cultivation, says the Public Affairs manager. “In particular, e-Grow makes it possible to give advice remotely. This is very valuable for new international greenhouse horticulture zones, where there isn’t the concentration of cultivation knowledge such as in the Netherlands. The development of autonomous cultivation systems can give high-tech greenhouse horticulture in a region such as the Middle East an enormous boost.”