Sustainable industrial vegetable production in the north?

Over the course of three weeks, a group of students investigated the possibility of operating a sustainable industrial vegetable production at Mo Industrial Park.

By Tina Larsen

This January, around 30 students attended an Experts in Teamwork village where they developed sustainable solutions to real challenges in an industry cluster. The EiT village is managed in collaboration with Engage and collaborates with the ACT Arctic Cluster Team – an industrial cluster that works for new green value chains and sustainable restructuring of the industry through innovation and increased hosting attractiveness.

Experts in Teamwork: Sustainable innovation in the industrial cluster Arctic Cluster Team

Experts in Teamwork is a master’s degree course in which students develop their interdisciplinary teamwork skills. The course is compulsory for all students in master’s programmes and programmes of professional study at NTNU.

In this village, the Arctic Cluster Team collected six cases among its member companies for this EiT village:

  • Industry as an identity builder
  • The people in the industry of the future
  • New green value chains
  • Sustainable vegetable production
  • New products from recycled plastic
  • Sustainability as a competitive advantage

Each case had at least 1 external partner, including ACT, Freyr Battery Norway, Sintef Helgeland, Mo Industripark AS, Rana Utvikling, BaRe Frukt og Grønt AS, Nordic Comfort Products (NCP), Kvarøy Fiskeoppdrett and Helgeland Betong.

Sigrid Westad Brandshaug, one of the educators of this village, experienced great commitment from the companies. Through the process, they have all had a close dialogue with the students, which in turn has created great enthusiasm in the student groups. She believes that ACT is to be thanked for the strong commitment, as they have been an important link between them and the companies.

During the three weeks, we followed one of the student groups who investigated the possibility to operate a sustainable industrial vegetable production at Mo Industrial Park. The student groups contribution has been valuable and their successful collaboration was due to the course’s focus on developing the student’s interdisciplinary skills.

“Through raising awareness and reflection on one’s own efforts and role in the group, one could change the pattern of action during the project to make the work more efficient, get rid of negativity and avoid conflicts before they arise. This laid the foundation for the successful collaboration and made one look forward to the next day.”

Jenny, student

About the case

Mo Industrial Park houses several large smelters as well as almost a hundred smaller companies that operate within a range of industries. Although there are several good examples of circular value chains within the industrial park today, there are a number of surplus materials, emissions and energy that have untapped potential. Three such underutilized surplus streams are wastewater from Kvarøy Smolt’s hatchery and CO2 and waste heat from industry.

Kvarøy is a forward-looking fish farming company that is concerned with sustainability in all parts of its value chain. They are now building a treatment plant on their smolt plant which will ensure that the sludge does not end up in the drain but is concentrated and used further. Both the residual water and the sludge from the plant contain ammonia and other nutrients, which can become valuable components for growing useful crops. Vegetables grow fastest at elevated levels of CO2. In addition, good and even temperature is important for the plants. Thus, farmed sludge, CO2 and surplus heat can be input factors for vegetable production. This process is called aquaponics.

Aquaponics as a competitive advantage

The student group investigated how aquaponics can contribute to industrial change in line with the green shift and how it can be a competitive advantage in a low-emission society. They have mapped the pros and cons of aquaponics and compared it to traditional cultivation. Aquaponics requires 95% less water consumption, can grow all year round, saves space, avoids bacteria in the soil and utilizes waste from other industries. On the other hand, Mo Industry Park will have to build and operate a greenhouse which is dependet on solar conditions and production costs.

Although the students admit it can be difficult to achieve financial profitability, especially in the initial phase, they point out other benefits. The facility can be a contribution to both creating good and engaging jobs and to develop a socially sustainable community.

A big barrier when it comes to raising awareness is lack of knowledge among consumers. The student group has therefore proposed creative marketing with climate-friendly packaging. In addition, the goods can follow the labeling scheme for organic or sustainable production. This can potentially create a competitive advantage among consumers who appreciate sustainable values.

They also conducted a survey to identify the future consumer. In the survey, 85% answered that they believe that companies get away too easily when it comes to sustainable responsibility in production. Furthermore, as many as 80% answered that they are interested in buying products grown on compost from fish sludge. The potential for aquaponic products is thus present. To make consumers aware, the student group proposes to use existing apps that are connected to grocery stores. In the app, there can be an overview of sustainable products in the store. In addition, the consumer can have the option to see the climate footprint of the foods they buy.

The learning process

Innovation, change and sustainability challenges are complex processes and require interdisciplinary efforts. The student groups therefore consisted of students from a wide range of academic backgrounds. Perspectives on becoming a change agent, as well as innovation and entrepreneurial methods were presented in the course.

“It has been incredibly exciting to work so closely with companies where sustainability has been in focus. In particular, the road to the goal has been interesting in the form of working with new people with different backgrounds and experiences. The interaction during the process has made it possible for the group to discuss the issue from several perspectives.”

Simen, student

The team members agree that they have been challenged not only professionally, but also in daring to be innovative and think new. They have successfully shown the potential that lies in aquaponics at Mo Industry Park, and it is of great value to the ongoing project, and for the society as a whole.

Elli Verhulst, one of the educators, says that this and the other projects in the EiT village have all focused on realistic challenges, where all the student groups developed projects that create value for others. This applies to both the companies representing the cases, but also for others through the sustainability perspective.

Elli believes the students have learned to become change agents while attending this course. They have worked with brainstorming, handled uncertainty and chaos, given and received feedback and made iterations on the projects based on testing them, practiced pitching and worked together across disciplines. Both Elli and Sigrid were positively surprised to see the great engagement in all the groups – taken into account that the students communicated in a digital format.

The educators believe that emphasizing both value creation on real challenges and reflections around how the group works together to solve these problems have made an impact on student learning. Based on student reflections and feedback they have received, Elli and Sigrid believe that the students take experiences and insights with them that will be important in future innovative projects.