Saltwater-grown crops lift food-security hopes of arid Arab countries

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. (AFP/File Photos)
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. (AFP/File Photos)
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Updated 17 July 2021

Saltwater-grown crops lift food-security hopes of arid Arab countries

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. (AFP/File Photos)
  • A KAUST startup is laying down the blueprint for eco-friendly farms of the future
  • Some of the crops are grown in greenhouses while others are farmed in open fields

JEDDAH: Conventional agriculture is energy- and water-intensive, especially in countries that rely on desalination to irrigate crops and often import most of their food, amplifying their carbon footprint.

The good news is that a Saudi Arabia 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.




Traditionally, agriculture in the Kingdom was problematic due to the high cost of the suppling water in a desert landscape. But Red Sea Farms is breaking new ground. (AFP/File Photo)

“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.

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However, this approach was long ineffective in the Gulf region because of the high relative humidity reducing the rate of evaporation. Lefers created a salt-based desiccant that dehumidifies the air and makes evaporative cooling possible.

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.

The principle is to get plants already growing in very salty water, or even seawater, and domesticate them to turn them into new varieties. Much of this work is being done at KAUST’s desert agriculture center.

For example, salicornia (sometimes known as sea asparagus) has an oil-rich seed that could be used for cooking and as a lubricant. Tester and his colleagues are improving it genetically so that it can become an economically viable crop.

“Your cooking oil in 10 years’ time could be made from salicornia,” he said, noting that oil seeds occupy a huge amount of land and have an enormous carbon footprint.




A general view taken from an airplane shows cultured farms in northern Saudi Arabia. (AFP/File Photo)

Having been selectively bred for thousands of years to improve their yield and hardiness, the wheat or corn seeds farmers use today are vastly different from their wild ancestors.

“We can turbocharge those processes through genomics but also through machine-learning algorithms to help accelerate that breeding process,” Tester said. “We’ve an opportunity now that we’ve never before had in human history to get some of these wild plants which have extraordinary properties and turn them into crops.”

The company aims to extend its footprint worldwide. Over a three- to five-year timeframe, the expansion will be focused on covered agriculture (the greenhouse) but will shift more to open-field agriculture five to 10 years from now.

Tester said: “This is a fantastic region in which to develop, test and deliver this technology. It’s a perfect incubator for this type of activity. Having got ourselves technically and financially ready, we want to go global. North and sub-Saharan Africa are on our doorstep and will be excellent regions to expand into, both in terms of impact and business potential.”


Three Iranian dissidents to be honored by PEN America

Iranians wearing protective masks cross a main road in Tehran during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP file photo)
Iranians wearing protective masks cross a main road in Tehran during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP file photo)
Updated 47 min ago

Three Iranian dissidents to be honored by PEN America

Iranians wearing protective masks cross a main road in Tehran during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP file photo)
  • The PEN gala is scheduled for Oct. 5 at its longtime venue the American Museum of Natural History, with Awkwafina serving as host

NEW YORK: Three imprisoned Iranian dissidents will be honored next month at Pen America’s annual gala.
The literary and human rights organization announced on Thursday that writer-filmmaker Baktash Abtin, novelist-journalist Keyvan Bajan and author-critic Reza Khandan Mahabadi are this year’s recipients of the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.
All three are members of the anti-censorship Iranian Writers Association and are serving a collective 15.5 years on charges including endangering national security and “spreading propaganda.”
“Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi are embodiments of the spirit that animates our work at PEN America. They are writers who are called not only to offer prose and ideas on a page, but to live fearlessly — and sacrifice immensely in service of the liberties that underpin free thought, art, culture, and creativity,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.
“By taking up the mantle of leadership within Iran’s literary community, they have served as beacons for countless authors and thinkers whose ability to imagine, push boundaries, and challenge repression under the most dangerous conditions is fed by the knowledge that they do not stand alone.”
The PEN gala is scheduled for Oct. 5 at its longtime venue the American Museum of Natural History, with Awkwafina serving as host.


Spoons become a new symbol of Palestinian ‘freedom’

Palestinians shop at a market in the old city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
Palestinians shop at a market in the old city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
Updated 7 sec ago

Spoons become a new symbol of Palestinian ‘freedom’

Palestinians shop at a market in the old city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
  • Prisoners carried out jail break with the utensil

JERUSALEM: The humble spoon has taken its place alongside traditional flags and banners as a Palestinian resistance symbol, after prisoners were said to have carried out one of Israel’s most spectacular jail breaks with the utensil.

When the six Palestinian militants escaped through a tunnel on Sept. 6 from the high security Gilboa Prison, social networks shared images of a tunnel at the foot of a sink, and a hole dug outside.
A hashtag, “the miraculous spoon,” suggested how the Hollywood-style feat might have occurred.
But whether or not the utensil had really been involved or its role was cooked up was at first unclear.
Then on Wednesday a lawyer for one of the fugitives who has since been recaptured told AFP that his client, Mahmud Abdullah Ardah, said he had used spoons, plates and even the handle of a kettle to dig the tunnel from his cell.
He began scraping his way out from the northern Israeli institution in December, the lawyer, Roslan MaHajjana, said.
Ardah was one of four fugitives later arrested after the army poured troops into the occupied West Bank as part of a massive manhunt.
All six were accused of plotting or carrying out attacks against Israelis.
Two men remain on the loose following the extremely rare escape. Israel has begun an inquiry into lapses that led to the embarrassing incident, which Palestinians see as a “victory.”
“With determination, vigilance... and cunning, and with a spoon, it was possible to dig a tunnel through which the Palestinians escaped and the enemy was imprisoned,” writer Sari Orabi said on the Arabi 21 website.
Palestinian cartoonist Mohammed Sabaaneh says the escape has served up “black humor” and exposed Israel’s security system to ridicule.
He has made several drawings featuring the utensil, including one titled “The Tunnel of Freedom.”
The issue has also stirred admiration outside the Palestinian territories, where spoons have been carried in demonstrations supporting prisoners detained by Israel.
In Kuwait, the artist Maitham Abdal sculpted a giant hand firmly clasping a spoon — the “spoon of freedom,” as he calls it.
Similarly inspired, Amman-based graphic designer Raed Al-Qatnani symbolically depicted six silhouettes taking a bridge to freedom, represented by a spoon.
For him, it also evokes the numerous hunger strikes undertaken by Palestinian prisoners to protest their incarceration.
In Tulkarem, a city in the West Bank occupied since 1967 by Israel, the escape brought back memories for Ghassan Mahdawi. He and another prisoner escaped from an Israeli prison in 1996 through a tunnel dug using not kitchen implements but nails.
He had been arrested for belonging to an armed group during the first Palestinian intifada, which lasted until the early 1990s.
“There’s nothing prisoners can’t do ... and there is always a flaw” in the system, said Mahdawi, who was rearrested and then released after a total of 19 years in custody.
In his view, the most recent escapees may have used tools other than spoons, obtained inside the prison, to carry out what every prisoner dreams of but few accomplish.
“To escape from an Israeli prison is something each inmate thinks about,” Mahdawi said.
To have done it with a spoon, he added, is something that “will go down in history.”


Ex-Algerian leader Bouteflika, ousted amid protests, dies

Ex-Algerian leader Bouteflika, ousted amid protests, dies
Updated 18 September 2021

Ex-Algerian leader Bouteflika, ousted amid protests, dies

Ex-Algerian leader Bouteflika, ousted amid protests, dies

ALGIERS, Algeria: Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who fought for independence from France in the 1950s and 1960s and was ousted amid pro-democracy protests in 2019 after 20 years in power, has died at age 84, state television announced Friday.
The report on ENTV, citing a statement from the office of current President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, did not provide the cause of death or other details.
Bouteflika had suffered a stroke in 2013 that had badly weakened him. Concerns about his state of health, kept secret from the Algerian public, helped feed public frustration with his rule that erupted in mass public protests in 2019 that led to his departure.
Earlier in his life, Bouteflika fought for independence from colonial ruler France, successfully negotiated with the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal to free oil ministers taken hostage in a 1975 attack on OPEC headquarters, and helped reconcile Algerian citizens with each other after a decade of civil war between radical Muslim militants and Algeria’s security forces.


Erdogan and Putin to discuss Syria in Sochi

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia. (REUTERS file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 18 September 2021

Erdogan and Putin to discuss Syria in Sochi

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia. (REUTERS file photo)
  • The March 2020 agreement followed weeks of fighting that brought Turkey and Russia close to conflict and displaced nearly a million people

ANKARA: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will visit Russia later this month for talks with President Vladimir Putin about the violence in northwestern Syria, where Moscow and Ankara back opposing sides, two Turkish officials said on Friday.
Turkey supports fighters who sought to topple President Bashar Assad, while Russia has helped shore up Assad after a decade of conflict.
Both sides have complained about violations of a truce they agreed 18 months ago in the northwestern Idlib region, the last rebel bastion left in Syria, where Ankara says two Turkish troops were killed in an attack on Saturday.
“The main agenda point is Syria, namely Idlib,” a senior Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the planned talks in Russian resort of Sochi. “The conditions set out in the Idlib agreement have not been fully implemented.”
The March 2020 agreement followed weeks of fighting that brought Turkey and Russia close to conflict and displaced nearly a million people.
“There should not be any new instability in Syria,” another Turkish official said.
Erdogan’s planned two-day visit will follow his trip to the UN General Assembly in New York next week, the officials said, without specifying exact dates.
Despite backing opposing sides in both the Syrian and Libyan conflicts, Turkey and Russia have forged close cooperation in the defense, energy and tourism sectors.


Israeli grandfather says he saved, not kidnapped, grandson in Italy

Israeli grandfather says he saved, not kidnapped, grandson in Italy
Updated 17 September 2021

Israeli grandfather says he saved, not kidnapped, grandson in Italy

Israeli grandfather says he saved, not kidnapped, grandson in Italy
  • Eitan Biran's parents, younger brother and 11 other people all died when a gondola plunged to the ground in northern Italy in May
  • Italian media said Shmuel Peleg had driven with his grandson across the nearby border to Switzerland and flown on a private jet to Tel Aviv

JERUSALEM: The grandfather of a six-year-old boy who is the only survivor of an Italian cable car disaster said he was looking out for his grandson’s wellbeing by bringing him to Israel.
He did so against the will of the boy’s family in Italy.
Eitan Biran’s parents, younger brother and 11 other people all died when a gondola plunged to the ground in northern Italy in May. He is now at the center of a custody battle.
The boy moved in with his paternal aunt, Aya Biran, in northern Italy after the accident. A week ago his maternal grandfather, Shmuel Peleg, picked him up for a planned family trip but they never returned, according to the aunt.
Italian media said Peleg had driven with his grandson across the nearby border to Switzerland and flown on a private jet to Tel Aviv.
“What is good for the boy outweighs my personal interests,” Peleg said when told during an interview on Israel’s Channel 12 that Italian authorities are calling his action kidnapping.
“So I decided that I am saving the boy and bringing him to Israel,” Peleg said during the TV interview that aired on Friday. “I took a car, a KIA. I drove with Eitan. The passports were checked at the embassy in Switzerland. Approved. And we took off in a completely legal manner to Israel.”
The boy’s family in Italy has filed a petition in a Tel Aviv family court for his return. Their Israeli lawyer said the court had set a hearing for Sept. 29. It is required to make a ruling within six weeks.
A legal source has said prosecutors in the northern Italian city of Pavia had opened a kidnapping investigation. The prosecutors’ office declined to comment.
Israeli police have said they had received a complaint that a minor had been kidnapped and flown to Israel, and had questioned an unidentified 58-year-old man on suspicion of involvement.
Asked why he did not wait for an Italian court to make a decision, Peleg said “I must say that I lost faith in the Italian judicial system.”
Peleg’s family, through a public relations firm, said earlier in a statement that the Italian consul in Israel came to Peleg’s house to meet with Eitan.
“The message from the consul was that the foreign ministries are working to try to find a compromise between the families,” according to the statement.
Magistrates are still investigating why the cable car, on a line connecting Stresa on the shores of Lake Maggiore to the nearby Mottarone mountain, plunged to the ground.