Saving energy with sustainable farming
Agriculture is at risk from climate change as temperatures, pest levels and growing seasons change. However, agriculture also contributes to these effects through emissions from fertilisers, water wastage and biological processes. A third of vegetables and fruit consumed in the EU are produced by protected horticulture. As 90% of the greenhouse growers are small and medium enterprises (SMEs), they have to compete with cheaper labour, production costs and regular supply from producers outside the EU.
The EU-funded EUPHOROS project increased the efficient use of inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides in protected horticulture. The four-year study, completed in August 2012, developed a sustainable greenhouse system that does not fully rely on fossil fuels for energy and minimises the carbon footprint of agriculture. The project achieved a 50% reduction in the amount of energy used as well as a sizeable saving of chemical inputs: a third less fertilisers and a tenth less pesticides.
The result was a number of structured components that can be used by farmers across the EU, three of which contain innovative tools and systems to reduce energy, water, fertiliser, pesticide consumption and waste. Another intervention optimises the growing environment, developing innovative and robust monitoring tools. A theoretical analysis was also conducted throughout the project to quantify the reduction of resource inputs and carbon footprint delivered by each component, together with financial and economic consequences.
The project identified several energy-saving areas in protected agriculture. “We tried to focus on the most typical greenhouses in Europe. The heated glass house and the plastic multi-tunnel are the most common in the Mediterranean region,” says Dr Cecilia Stanghellini, project leader of EUPHOROS.
“The environmental impact from protected agriculture depends on the kind of greenhouse and the type of crops being grown. In cold countries the largest impact is from burning fossil fuels to heat the greenhouses. However, in Mediterranean countries, a third of the impact is from building the greenhouse structures and another third is due to the application of fertilisers,” explains Stanghellini.
The project involved the German company Groglass, which specialises in large-area, thin-film coatings. Groglass developed different types of glass coatings and structures for optimum light and climate controls. Different variables affect growing output, such as the sun’s position over a greenhouse, plant light wavelength sensitivity, temperature and humidity conditions both inside and outside the greenhouse.
Reusing water was one of EUPHOROS project team’s key strategies. “The main mission was also to reduce the use of fertilisers,” says Stanghellini. “The drained water contains fertilisers and if you reuse it you not only have fewer emissions but there is also no need for extra fertilisers,” explains Stanghellini.
This strategy would be especially effective in one of the project’s test locations, Hungary, where the use of fertilisers accounts for 19% of their total production costs. This method also reduces the demand on the water supply, which is particularly critical in the Mediterranean region.
The system had to be adaptable to the diversity of climatic, economic and environmental constraints across Europe. In order to be locally relevant the scientists installed, fine-tuned and evaluated crop combinations, equipment and techniques in sites across the Netherlands, Spain and Hungary.
The participation of commercial partners and local stakeholders meant the most promising results were implemented swiftly and the researchers received prompt feedback from dissemination activities such as workshops and training courses. By adopting the results of the EUPHOROS project, greenhouse farmers across the EU not only reduce their dependence on resources but remain competitive in an ever-changing market.