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 setting up a solar-powered, 20 hectare (50 acre) facility that promises to grow a variety of vegetables without wasting a drop of fresh water.
"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 energy consumption.
"We can no longer make solutions that come at the expense of other sectors," said Hauge. "There is a need for a more integrated approach".
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. 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 global scale.
"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 Flammini. 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 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.