There’s a lot going on in the “Belly of Brussels” even before sunrise. The first delivery vans roll across the forecourt of the Marché des Abattoirs. They bring crates of vegetables, fragrant bread, fresh fish and exotic spices to the countless stalls. Lamb halves are brought in from the adjacent slaughterhouse, which gives the market its name. The lively hustle and bustle differs little from many markets in other large cities. There is nothing to indicate that the future is being worked on here: providing city dwellers with food, directly from their immediate surroundings.
Because what is really extraordinary is invisible to the visitor and is located on the roof of one of the large, newer buildings. A farm with greenhouses and fish breeding facilities is operated on the “Foodmet”, a rather unattractive construction made of prestressed concrete. According to the makers, it is one of the largest of its kind in Europe.
A narrow staircase takes visitors to a place that at first glance looks like a lush green oasis in a sea of houses. Large greenhouses protect the sensitive plants from the harsh northern European climate. Behind the panes of glass, fields of basil alternate with a jungle of tomato plants and peppers. However, the work up here has little to do with farm romance. When Loïc Couttelle explains how the entire system works, it sounds like a lecture on physical connections, engineering, a lot of biology, nutritional science and business dependencies.
The realization of the BIGH project (Building Integrated Greenhouses) began almost five years ago. From the very beginning, the work processes have been continuously developed, says Loïc Couttelle, who runs a large organic farm near Lille and invests his money in promising agricultural projects. He is convinced that there will be many such rooftop farms in major cities in the future. The aim in Brussels is to try out the best conditions for each production area. “We want to develop various modules here that can then be easily set up at other locations,” he says. It quickly becomes clear that the heart of the makers beats for the careful treatment of the environment, but that precisely calculating business people are also at work in their heads.
The Frenchman is particularly fond of fish farming, which he could talk about for hours. It was important to find the right species of fish, Loïc Couttelle describes the first hurdles. For example, the market with inexpensive salmon is already covered, which is why, after several attempts with other fish, they have now ended up with trout. More than 20 tons are delivered per year to restaurants and traders in Brussels, who are enthusiastic about the high quality of the meat.
The water in the huge rearing tanks is constantly circulated, cleaned and is part of a large cycle, explains Loïc Couttelle. For example, the excretions of the fish are the ideal fertilizer for the plants in the greenhouses. Herbs, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and some other types of vegetables are mainly grown on the more than 2000 square meters. To Couttelle’s regret, however, none of these products receive an organic seal.
“We grow the plants on substrate and not in natural soil,” he explains, but emphasizes in the next breath that it contains the same nutrients as the soil outside. And of course, no chemicals or pesticides would be used to control vermin. “We rely 100 percent on nature,” says the Frenchman. The energy supply for the entire facility high above the Marché des Abattoirs is just as complex as the rearing of fish and plants.
Everything is designed to use as little electricity as possible and tap into natural sources. Of course, a large photovoltaic system is mounted on part of the roof. “We also generate a significant part of the electricity from the waste heat from the greenhouses,” explains Loïc Couttelle, with which the water tanks of the fish, for example, are always kept at exactly 17 degrees. But the waste heat from the numerous refrigerators in the restaurants on the ground floor of the Foodmet building is also converted into energy for the farm using special heat pumps. “Nothing is wasted here,” says the entrepreneur.
It becomes clear that Loïc Couttelle is on a mission and definitely wants to improve the world. “We are working here on the city of tomorrow, which will be more sustainable and resource-saving,” he says with great conviction. However, the man is not a dreamer, but always focuses on what is feasible for him.
He already has his next project in mind. “It would be possible to extract CO2 from the outside air and channel it into the greenhouses,” he says, describing the tempting idea. That would kill two birds with one stone, says Loïc Couttelle. The climate-damaging gas would be reduced and the plants would grow better. It would be the next step towards a more livable environment.