Arid farming a possibility

Desert food security may be more than just a mirage.

A new project in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar suggests that food production in arid Middle Eastern climates may be simpler than once thought. The Sahara Forest Project (a plan to use technology to ‘green-ify’ the desert) was able to use their single-hectare test plant to grow seventy-five kilograms of produce per square metre over three growing seasons. This is comparable to farm production in temperate Europe, in spite of the harsh conditions of the Qatari desert, which can include summer temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius. For a growing country that relies heavily on imported food, these new techniques may be the solution to an increasingly important problem of food security.

Qatar has been in science news a lot lately. With education and research institutions from around the world setting up shop in the country (from the UK’s London Imperial College to Canada’s own College of the North Atlantic), and the recent creation of a long-term national research strategy, the focus of the government is away from a fossil-fuel-centred economy, and towards a sustainable, knowledge-based model. Examining Qatar’s food systems is a part of this mandate.

The new system is built around a special ‘saltwater greenhouse’ – a partially enclosed growing space. Seawater is passed over a curtain at one end, and the prevailing wind carries evaporated moisture through the greenhouse and over the plants. Water then condenses out of the air as it reaches a series of cold seawater pipes at the greenhouse’s far end, and can be gathered for further use.

Electricity is also generated at the plant, using parabolic mirrors to reflect the sun’s heat, thus boiling water to drive a turbine. This power is then used to run the facility’s systems, allowing for energy self-sufficiency. In a way, this design follows an old tradition: making use of both sun and sea to sustain life in the desert (once a pearl-diving region, offshore natural gas has become the new bounty in Qatar).

Beyond their initial designs, researchers were surprised to find that the leakage of cool, moist air from the greenhouse allowed plants to establish outside of its protective walls. This behaviour was exploited by the team, who grew a number of hardy desert plants in the cooled area around the site.

“It was surprising how little encouragement the external crops needed,” said project chief Joakim Hauge. His group has tinkered with a number of expansive ideas, such as growing algae for biofuel or using the natural concentrating system of the greenhouse to produce salt for commercial use. They also hope to scale the project up; sixty hectares would be enough to completely replace current imports of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. A twenty-hectare facility in Aqaba, Jordan is already being planned.

“Protected agriculture is an important option for the desert areas, particularly in the Middle East,” said Richard Tutwiler of the American University in Cairo. “The big question is economic feasibility. How much did it cost?” As the team moves towards their larger operations, it appears that we will soon find out.

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