Fighting Mother Nature

Desert agriculture

How do you grow food production with less water? Saudi Arabia is finding solutions to this dilemma.

With enough irrigation systems, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries have been able to imitate conventional agriculture methods. Omar Al-Jundi, a Saudi farmer who developed the first vertical farms in the region, paints a striking image of flying over Riyadh: large green circles contrasting sands of the barren desert landscape. From the skies and the sight of these fruitful and round plots, it seems Saudi Arabia has been successful in increasing its domestic agriculture production and achieving food self-sufficiency. But conventional farming on parched land comes with its costs, most notably water depletion.

By estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agriculture accounts for 70% of water consumption in the GCC region. The situation in the country specifically is even more out of balance when agriculture’s contribution to GDP is taken into consideration. Saudi Arabia uses 88% of its water resources for agriculture and food production, but the industry only totals 2% of GDP.

And this disproportionate use of water is not even helping the Kingdom to maintain food security in the long run. FAO classifies the Middle Eastern country as food stable—for now. In an 2017 FAO brief about their partnership with the Kingdom and technical capacity building contributions, the organization outlines ongoing efforts to support the country and its current food security. However, there are long-term concerns about local food production, dependence on food imports, wasteful food consumption, and inefficient food trade policies. Indeed, Saudi Arabia imports more than 80% of its food products.

While clearly a multi-faceted issue, many initiatives focused on boosting domestic production and food self-sufficiency are gaining ground. FAO, along with the Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture (MEWA), Saudi Grain Authority, and several private players are looking at innovative, unconventional farming methods in accordance with FAO and the Kingdom’s goals to improve agricultural systems and emphasize “a sustainable utilization of natural resources.”

Desert Growing is a collaborative effort for smart greenhouse solutions in the Kingdom, bringing together leaders and experts in various aspects of greenhouse growing. Albeit an international cooperation, one of the key collaborators is the local Saudi Greenhouses Management and Agri Marketing Company, which has operated high-tech greenhouses in Saudi for nearly 30 years. From operating 8ha of greenhouses in 1987, the company now oversees nine farms spanning 75ha. Saudi Greenhouses specializes mostly in vegetables. The company helps Desert Growing deliver turnkey greenhouse and horticulture projects throughout the Kingdom.

On the research side, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is leading the way with its Desert Agriculture Initiative, which is aimed at bringing together biologists and other scientists—across universities and institutions, not only at KAUST—to research crop improvement in desert environments.

Saudi farmer Al-Jundi is doing his work on vertical farms through a Saudi program to encourage food security and provide funding for projects within this mandate. He studied aquaponics, aquaculture, and hydroponics because his vertical farms produce food without soil, thus, without extensive and costly irrigation systems. Compared to open-field farming, Al-Jundi’s Badia Farms uses 90% less water and recycles its water up to nine times. What’s more, specialized lighting and an indoor growing environment negate the need for pesticides and create synergies for optimal energy and environmental efficiency.

And though the first vertical farm in the region is physically in Dubai, his work has significant implications for desert agriculture across the Middle East, and he is focusing on the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the system in Dubai was manufactured in Riyadh, and the next one is set to open by 2020 in Jeddah.The Kingdom is beginning to plant the seeds for water-smart agriculture and food production practices, the fruits of which will hopefully lead to a more food-independent future.