Saudi Arabia farms in the desert for a more sustainable economy
Amid rising temperatures threatening living conditions and food security in the Gulf and the broader Middle East, collaborative projects aiming to beat the heat with a focus on enhancing the production of drought-resilient crops have taken root in Saudi Arabia. Environmentally friendly investment and green initiatives in the region, such as a project between the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, or ICRISAT, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, announced at the end of last month, will help create a more sustainable economy, experts said. The desert topography and ample coastlines of Gulf Cooperation Council countries also offer opportunities to embrace new energy technologies away from fossil fuels, they said. The three-year ICRISAT-FAO collaboration will support Saudi Arabia's food production advancement and economic diversification, promote conservation, and empower farmers through digital tools to tackle challenges amid limited water supply. The joint initiative with the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture will focus on increasing the productivity of three vital dryland crops sorghum, pearl millet and sesame by up to 20 percent in the regions of Mecca, Jazan, Aseer and Al-Baha. Collectively, these regions produce 170,000 metric tons of sorghum, 4,800 tons of pearl millet and 4,000 tons of sesame across 70,000 hectares. Production is expected to expand with the new initiative, the ICRISAT said. Ashok Kumar, ICRISAT project coordinator, said crop varieties were selected based on crop utilization, growing season, environmental conditions and pest and disease prevalence, as well as thorough consultation with farmers, extension workers, scientists and on-site visits. "Sesame is primarily used for oil extraction, while sorghum and millet serve both as grain and forage," Kumar said. "The grains are used for making traditional flatbreads and porridge, while green forage and dry stover are important sources of animal feed. Farmers take multiple cuts of green forage from a single crop to feed their cattle, sheep and camels." In March, the United Nations warned of accelerating food insecurity in the Arab region because of global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. An estimated 53.9 million people suffered from severe food insecurity in the region in 2021, accounting for a 55 percent increase since 2010, a UN report said. In addition, more than half the population in Arab states, or 162.7 million people, could not afford a healthy diet in 2020, the UN said. The cost of a healthy diet in the region increased each year since 2017, reaching $3.47 per person per day in 2020. Salman Zafar, founder of the think tank EcoMENA in Qatar, said sustainability "involves the creation of healthier, economically stable and socially viable livelihoods" for current and future generations. "The spike in sustainability-related investment will help in creating a more sustainable economy in the region that is not reliant on finite fossil fuels, but on renewable sources," Zafar said. "In recent years, regional governments and regulators have launched a host of sustainability projects to reverse environmental degradation, and corporate and the masses have been urged to take the lead. However, there's a long way to go." A recent study published in the journal Nature Sustainability, titled "Quantifying the human cost of global warming", found that countries across the Gulf and the wider Middle East are highly vulnerable to rising extreme heat. It looked at how countries will be exposed to "unprecedented heat", defined as mean annual temperatures of 29 C or higher by 2070. Qatar's whole population will be exposed to extreme heat, closely followed by the UAE and Bahrain with almost their whole populations exposed. Kuwait and Oman will have more than 80 percent of their populations exposed, followed by Saudi Arabia with more than 60 percent. Dalal AlGhawas, founder and CEO of agri-food consultancy and trading company SWAPAC in Singapore, said GCC nations, as prominent members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, are in a unique position when it comes to climate action. With looming carbon taxes and countries around the world embracing renewable and nuclear energy, GCC members have to find new ways to diversify their economies and ensure their food security needs, as most of them import 80 to 90 percent of their food, she said. "The GCC has a desert topography and ample access to coastlines, demonstrating opportunities to embrace new technologies such as solar energy and offshore farming," AlGhawas said. "Low energy costs from fossil fuels combined with solar power can offer solutions for sufficient energy needs for agriculture and desalination efforts to protect natural aquifers in the region." Climate action startups have emerged within the GCC to tackle soil salinity and enhance food security, she said. These include the UAE's floating offshore farming techniques to utilize evaporated water without brine rejection, and Saudi Arabia's Red Sea Farms that combine the internet of things, analytics and biotechnology to help farmers grow food sustainably using fewer resources in water-scarce areas. "With the approaching COP28 summit in the UAE this year, it is expected that many more technologies will be highlighted in GCC," AlGhawas said. At the 43rd session of the executive board of the Arab Center for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands held in the Saudi capital Riyadh on June 7, Lebanon's Agriculture Minister Abbas Hajj Hassan called for a unified Arab strategy to ensure regional food security, The National reported. The minister said "joint projects can provide good support during the crises and shocks that any nation is exposed to". He also noted that Lebanon has established partnerships with regional and international organizations and "aspired to strengthen these partnerships".