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Saltwater-grown crops lift hopes of arid Arab countries

A Saudi Arabian startup offers an ingenious, environmentally friendly solution that could ease nations’ food worries. Red Sea Farms, which is based on the campus of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), near Jeddah, nurtures new breeds of crops that are irrigated with seawater.

Some are grown in greenhouses while others are farmed in open fields. The company cultivates and sells at least a dozen crops, including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, celery, eggplant, and green beans. All are sustainable, organic, and pesticide-free. The farm will expand its crop range to include around 30 fruit and vegetables in 2021, eventually raising this to about 100.

"It’s about increasing the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables across the world while reducing the carbon and water footprint,” said Mark Tester, a bioscience professor at KAUST and co-founder of Red Sea Farms. “What we need to do is get plants that now grow on full seawater and turn them into crops.” 

Red Sea Farms, which has received $1.9 million in funding from KAUST, began by building a 2,000-square-meter greenhouse on the university campus. It has now broken ground on a 10,000-square-meter greenhouse nearby. The first facility has cut its freshwater consumption by 90 percent and also reduced energy use thanks to innovative engineering that improves the process of evaporative cooling.

This is the result of work done by Red Sea Farms co-founder and CEO Ryan Lefers. His solution relies on liquid evaporation to lower the air temperature — in the same way that sweating cools our bodies — and uses far less energy than other air-conditioning methods.

The company extracts brackish groundwater from a nearby borehole to irrigate its crops and run the air-conditioning system. In Saudi Arabia, most freshwater is obtained via desalination, which is energy-intensive and expensive, so switching to groundwater has slashed the farm’s carbon footprint. Red Sea Farms is also developing open-field saltwater-grown plants. “That’s where the plant science comes in more to create new types of crops,” said Tester.

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