When Professor Anthony Ryan stood in front of a group of Syrian refugees and told them fruit and vegetables could be grown out of a pile of discarded mattresses, they were not convinced. Many of them had spent years tending to fertile land in the Daraa region of their home country before the civil war forced them to flee to a desert in neighboring Jordan, and the concept of soil-free farming was hard to grasp at first.
But after following instructions from the University of Sheffield chemistry professor and using their own knowledge to refine the process, hundreds of refugees at the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps are now running hydroponic farms, which produce fresh fruit, vegetables, and an array of herbs. The plants are held in place using polyurethane foam mattresses and the foam absorbs a diluted liquid fertilizer to keep the roots moist.
“People have become self-sufficient really quickly,” said Professor Ryan. “There are people with vertical allotments at the back of the metal huts they live in, which are called caravans because they are on wheels, and they can produce 60kg of tomatoes a year. We’ve learned a lot from the Syrian farmers about how to grow things.
“All we’ve really given them is showing them you can grow things in this polyurethane foam, but they’ve shown us how to grow all these different plants in really, really harsh environments. Our research has really benefited from working with them.”
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