It was many years ago in Manchester when my seven year old son invited his friend to join us for lunch. I fed them their favourite – fish fingers, chips and peas.
As I stood in the kitchen peeling potatoes, our guest watching me, suddenly exclaimed “Golly gosh – I didn’t know that chips came from potatoes”.
Remember, in those days “golly gosh” was a popular expression of surprise – a euphemism for ‘Good God’ (from1757). This made me question what boys might utter today, but all I could think of was ‘Wow’, which surprisingly isn’t modern at all but dates back to sixteenth century Scotland.
But I digress. The boy’s comment shocked me and I resolved to ensure that least my three sons knew the basics of where food comes from. Too few children have the experience of planting a seed and watching it grow. I felt they needed to get their hands dirty, work the soil and observe the joy of creation.
This principle I upheld until recently, when my ideas were completely turned on their head, as I began reading about an alternative system of growing plants – hydroponics which is, wait for it – without soil – using only water with added nutrients.
How revolutionary, thought I, this must be a recent innovation – but guess what, wrong again! For whilst researching this subject, my voyage of discovery led me to Sir Francis Bacon (1551-1626), an English philosopher, scientist, jurist, orator and prolific and erudite author, who served as Attorney General and later Lord Chancellor of England. (What, I wonder, did he do in his spare time?)
below: Sir Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban.
One of his books, published posthumously in 1627, described how to grow plants without soil. Following this, research into water culture became popular and many scientists carried on experimenting with his ideas.
In 1929 Gericke, a plant physiologist, created a sensation by growing tomato plants 25feet high without soil. Others refuted his method declaring it had little advantage over soil-grown produce, but around the same time, one of the earliest hydroponic successes occurred on Wake Island, a rocky atoll in the Pacific which was a refuelling stop for PanAm airlines. The island had no soil, but fresh vegetables were hydroponically grown there for the passengers and crew.
Since then influential bodies – NASA and the Kennedy Space Station, have demonstrated how hydroponics can provide a life support system in space travel. Today Canada has hundreds of acres of large-scale greenhouses with tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers grown this way and it is estimated that the world market will increase fourfold by 2023.
‘Green In The City’ (above)
My interest in this topic was aroused after reading an article about a revolutionary rooftop farm. Set up by Mendi Falk “Green In The City” is located on the rooftop of the oldest and largest shopping mall in Israel – the Dizengoff Centre, Tel Aviv. I had to see it for myself.
I was greeted by Sheana – an expert in sustainability whose enthusiasm was infectious. She told me that two dozen varieties of vegetables and herbs including lettuce, basil, pak choy, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers are grown and supplied to 20 restaurants in Tel Aviv, with no transport costs and hence no carbon footprint. The public buys from three stalls in the mall paying by means of an honesty box.
Their hydroponic process is elegant in its simplicity. A tank of fish sits on the roof. Plants feed off waste created by the fish and in return the fish thrive on the oxygen produced by the crops which grow faster, produce greater yields and take up less space than using other methods. Pesticides are eliminated as most plant diseases come from soil. A main feature is that it uses 70 – 90% less water than soil grown produce. In a world threatened with diminishing water resources this is a massive plus.
‘Green in the City’
Their aim is to inspire urban dwellers to ‘green’ the city. However other timely objectives are addressed. The complex also serves as an educational facility with visitors learning how to grow their own hydroponic produce and also which varieties of plants attract butterflies. Bee hives will be installed emphasising their importance in our lives. 1,700 trees grow on the roof and these will eventually be given to projects encouraging afforestation which in turn reduces the carbon output. Simply put, the more trees, the less pollution.
I learned how rainwater can be better utilised. All over the world most is wasted when, for example, a sudden downpour can result in urban flooding. At Green In The City a section is devoted to demonstrating how absorbent ‘pillows’ can conserve large amounts of rainfall which is then slowly released to feed the plants. This system protects buildings by eliminating the flooding that can cause structural damage.
But this is not the only green spot blooming in Israel. Others are in Beersheba, Jerusalem and Haifa. Bat Yam houses a special community project supported by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, where those with mental health issues grow hydroponic plants as a means of aiding their recovery. Hydroponics are also used by some religious Jews to grow crops during the Shmita ( every seventh year) following a biblical injunction to leave the land uncultivated.
Hydroponics is now used in many countries, but of particular interest to me, and certainly ‘unexpected’, is the farm installed 100 feet below busy London streets. ‘Growing Underground’ is an urban farm in Clapham, housed in a network of 7,000 square feet of tunnels that used to shelter up to 8,000 people during air raids in WW11. It was opened by restaurateur Michel Roux (below) who is delighted that fresh organic produce is now available locally.As seen in Tel Aviv, some 20 different types of herbs are cultivated and distributed to a growing number of markets, wholesalers and contract caterers across the city. The main difference is that in London they use low energy LED lighting – they claim that they have reached the stage where plants can grow without natural light, instead using the LED spectrum adjusted to suit different plants.
So my story began with a child who did not know where chips came from. This concerned me then, but not as much as the results of a recent UK survey about food. 27,500 youngsters aged 5-16yrs were interviewed. 30% of the youngest thought that cheese comes from plants, 11% of the older ones believed that tomatoes were grown under ground, and many others claimed that fish fingers were made from chicken. 22% were sure that pasta came from animals.
However as strange as this seems, nothing compares to what happened on April Fool’s Day 1957 when the BBC aired a t.v. programme showing a Swiss family harvesting spaghetti from their trees. This achieved immediate credibility as the voice-over was by the respected broadcaster Richard Dimbleby.
Picking spaghetti in Switzerland.
We must remember that pasta was not an everyday food in 1950s Britain, only known then as the tinned variety in tomato sauce and considered a delicacy. Eight million people watched the programme, following which hundreds phoned in to ask how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC reportedly told them to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.” You absolutely must look this up on YouTube – it is unbelievable!
But now for a last word on fish fingers. I did not mention that the youngster featured earlier in this story told me that he never realised that fish had fingers. I had no answer for that. But to add to the mystique, some years ago the graffiti artist Banksy displayed an art installation of fish fingers squirming around in a goldfish bowl. These images have remained with me and have definitely stopped me from ever wanting to eat fish fingers again. If you watch this on Youtube I suspect you might agree…….