business food

Reversing desertification with the Sahara Forest Project

has an intriguing premise. Start with things that we have in abundance – deserts, saltwater and CO2, and work with them to produce what we lack – food, fresh water and energy. It’s an idea I’ve read about before and wondered if it would ever come to anything, but this week a press release arrived in my inbox. The first Sahara Forest Project station has just launched in Aqaba, Jordan, and is now producing vegetables in one of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes.

The plan is to tap the desert heat to evaporate seawater, and use the process to maintain a consistent growing temperature inside a seawater-cooled greenhouse. The evaporated seawater then condenses as fresh water to irrigate the crops. There’s also enough water left over to grow desert plants and hedges outside, beginning the processes of restoring soil and reversing desertification.

It would be impossibly expensive to re-vegetate the desert on its own, but when combined with a commercial farming operation, it becomes economically viable. The project creates jobs, produces food, and should eventually begin to change the desert landscape itself – a truly restorative business model.

The project began with a pilot in Qatar and moved to Jordan recently, where there are plans for a 490 acre farm. (One of the reasons for doing it in Aqaba is that it is a low-lying desert, which dramatically reduces the costs of pumping seawater to the site.) Next year a farm is due to open in Tunisia, and then it will actually be in the Sahara. Will it ever live up to the ambitious of its name, and deliver a Saharan forest? Not any time soon, but as these sorts of projects scale up and the costs come down, they could make a real contribution to feeding the world in decades to come. There’s no competition for land in the desert, and there’s no shortage of sea water.

8 comments

  1. I’d be very interested to see the business model i.e. the financial numbers. How close is it to markets? IF it stacks up financially and can get produce to customers economically, then it needs really great advocates to promote it to the oil-rich kingdoms and get them to secure their futures by such means. I really hope this suceeds.

    1. Apparently the pilot project found costs similar to vegetables grown in Europe, so definitely competitive. As for advocates, it has the Norwegian government and royal family behind it, along with EU and gulf funding.

  2. This all sounds amazing. It is fantastic that they are using the commercial enterprise to help re-vegetate areas of desert.

  3. I’m very suspicious of many of these desert projects as they seem to treat natural deserts as waste land that serves no ecological function which is not true. While the spread of the Sahara should be slowed, just eradicating deserts would not only lead to the extinction of many species that live there but could have countless knock on effects on the wider environment.

    1. It’s all relative though, isn’t it? If you compare the ecological impact of clearing a patch of desert for development or agriculture, and clearing a patch of rainforest, it’s obvious the desert is less harmful. Sourcing food from land that is relatively poor in biodiversity leaves more abundant parts of the world untouched.

      Secondly, the tree planting aspects of this project make it restorative agriculture. The net effect on biodiversity will be an increase.

      What’s more, there’s a lot of desert out there! This will be a project of 490 acres. The Sahara is over 2 billion acres and growing. We would have to build tens of thousands of farms of this size before it took back even 1% of the Sahara.

      1. I said suspicious not antagonistic. I realise the value for areas on the edges of desert, particularly where the desert is spreading, but there is no such thing as net biodiversity increase if we’re dealing in the reality of ecosystems. There are knock on effects for ecosystems that are difficult to control. All I’m advocating here is caution in assuming the value of certain systems.

  4. Well, a certain degree of scepticism is warranted with any business making big claims. And you’re right to point out that we shouldn’t talk about the desert as if it’s empty wasteland. So I appreciate your note of caution!

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