(Refiles to clarify funding for initial phase, para 16)
By Umberto Bacchi
ROME, March 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With scorching
summer temperatures and little rainfall, the barren scrublands
around the port of Aqaba in Jordan, one of the world's most arid
countries, might seem ill suited to cultivating cucumbers.
Yet a Norwegian company is planning to set up a
solar-powered, 20 hectare (50 acre) facility that promises to
grow a variety of vegetables without wasting a drop of fresh
"We take what we have enough of - sunlight, carbon dioxide,
seawater and desert - to produce what we need more of - food
water and energy," said Joakim Hauge, chief executive of the
Sahara Forest Project (SFP).
Harnessing abundant resources to generate scarce ones will
be key to feeding a growing global population, set to reach 9
billion by 2050, without damaging the environment or
accelerating climate change, he said.
Food production must rise by about 60 percent by 2050 to
generate enough for everyone to eat, according to the United
Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Agriculture already accounts for 70 percent of global fresh
water use, while the food sector is responsible for more than 20
percent of planet-warming emissions and 30 percent of world
"We can no longer make solutions that come at the expense of
other sectors," said Hauge. "There is a need for a more
The Aqaba complex, set to open in the summer, evaporates
salt water piped from the nearby Red Sea to cool greenhouses,
creating conditions for crops to grow all year round.
Sea water is also desalinated to generate salt and fresh
water for irrigation, while vapour from greenhouses is used to
humidify surrounding patches of parched land so plants can grow.
AGRICULTURE OF TOMORROW?
SFP said a pilot project in the Gulf state of Qatar
generated cucumber yields comparable to those of European farms.
Plans are underway to expand operations to Tunisia.
But FAO experts said high costs involved limited the
potential of such projects to ramp up food production on a
"You need a lot of energy and a lot of money so...the
question may arise whether the same resources could be put to
better use," said FAO natural resources officer Alessandro
To be financially viable, production must focus on
high-value crops, like cucumbers and tomatoes, which poor
countries might find cheaper to import, said Flammini, who
analysed the Qatar pilot for a 2014 FAO report.
"It's an interesting concept for fulfilling local needs and
especially in terms of food independence and to meet the demand
of a niche market," he said.
The initial phase of the Aqaba complex had a $3.7 million
budget and received financial support from Norway, the European
Union and other investors, according to SFP.
Hauge said besides producing food, the complex, which will
include a laboratory and research facilities, would produce side
benefits by greening arid areas and creating jobs.
"We believe that this is part of the agriculture of
tomorrow," the biologist-turned-entrepreneur told the Thomson
Reuters Foundation by phone.
FROM AUSTRALIA TO SOMALIA
Several other companies are employing similar technologies
in other arid corners of the world.
In 2016, UK-based agribusiness Sundrop Farms Holding Ltd
opened a vast greenhouse for tomato farming in the Australian
outback near Port Augusta, 300 km (190 miles) north of Adelaide.
The facility runs on energy mostly produced by a 115 metre
solar tower that draws sunlight from 23,000 mirrors surrounding
"Traditional agriculture is wasteful in terms of water and
fossil fuels. In addition, unprotected crops are at the mercy of
the elements, causing gaps in supply, quality issues and price
spikes," Sundrop's CEO Philipp Saumweber said in an email.
The company has signed a 10-year contract to supply
Australian supermarket chain Coles with truss tomatoes and
received investments of about $100 million from private equity
firm KKR & Co, according to a 2014 statement.
"While the capital expenditure required to build our farms
is slightly more expensive due to its cutting-edge nature, we
reap the benefits of this initial investment in the long run
through savings of fossil inputs," said Saumweber.
Around seven thousand miles away, in sunbaked and
drought-hit Somaliland, another British-based venture, Seawater
Greenhouse, is setting up a pilot facility aimed at making
high-tech greenhouse production more affordable.
"We have eliminated using fans," said British inventor
Charlie Paton, a former business partner of Saumweber, who
pioneered the use of solar energy and salt water for irrigation
in the 1990s.
"We designed (the greenhouse) to be cool by exploiting the
prevailing wind. So it's a wind-cooled greenhouse," he said in a
The one-hectare complex, which received funding from the
British government, cost about $100,000, he said, adding he
expected it to produce around 30 tonnes of tomatoes a year and
16 litres of drinking water a day for irrigation and livestock.
Paton said he hoped the greenhouse, which employs mostly
local staff, would serve as a hub for expansion across the Horn
"The region gets a lot of humanitarian aid and that's
arguably detrimental because if you give free food to people you
put farmers out of business," he said.
"It has more chances of success if people can make money out
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Ros
Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate
change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)