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.”


Egypt, Italy demand quick exit of mercenaries from Libya

Egypt, Italy demand quick exit of mercenaries from Libya
Updated 40 min 38 sec ago

Egypt, Italy demand quick exit of mercenaries from Libya

Egypt, Italy demand quick exit of mercenaries from Libya
  • Egypt and Italy say mercenary groups and foreign forces should leave Libya without delay
  • Egypt, Italy welcome opening of the coastal road between Sirte and Misrata

CAIRO: Egypt and Italy have demanded that foreign forces and mercenaries leave Libya without delay, and welcomed the opening of the coastal road between Sirte and Misrata.

This came during a phone call between Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his Italian counterpart Luigi Di Maio.

The two sides discussed several regional issues, especially the developments in Libya and Tunisia.

A statement by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that Di Maio briefed Shoukry on the overall results of his recent visit to Libya and his meetings with various parties there.

It added that Shoukry stressed the importance of fulfilling the roadmap approved by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum and UN Security Council Resolution 2570, regarding holding presidential and parliamentary elections on their scheduled date in December, with the need for all foreign forces and mercenaries to leave Libya immediately.

He also welcomed the step taken to open the coastal road between Sirte and Misrata.

Regarding Tunis, Shoukry stressed the importance of supporting stability and the legitimate aspirations of the people there, adding that Egypt stood in solidarity with all measures taken by President Qais Saeed to preserve the integrity of state institutions and overcome the delicate situation in the country.


Areas of Iraqi province lose power after attack on pylons

Areas of Iraqi province lose power after attack on pylons
Updated 05 August 2021

Areas of Iraqi province lose power after attack on pylons

Areas of Iraqi province lose power after attack on pylons
  • "Terrorist elements" using "explosive devices" carried out attacks on 13 pylons over the past 48 hours, said the electricity ministry
  • Provincial authorities distributed photos showing the damaged pylons

SAMARRA, Iraq: Iraq’s northern Salaheddin province was left partially without power after “terrorists” blew several pylons, the government said Thursday, as increasing attacks add to the strain on Iraq’s electricity network.
“Terrorist elements” using “explosive devices” carried out attacks on 13 pylons over the past 48 hours, the electricity ministry said in a statement.
Provincial authorities distributed photos showing the damaged pylons.
Several districts in Salaheddin have since been without power, including some neighborhoods in Samarra, one of the province’s largest cities, an AFP correspondent said.
Unclaimed attacks on Iraq’s electricity network have been increasing since the start of summer.
Authorities normally accuse “terrorists” of being behind the attacks, without identifying a particular group.
Oil-rich Iraq produces just 16,000 megawatts of power — far below the 24,000 megawatts needed, and even further from the expected future needs of a country whose population is set to double by 2050, according to the UN.
The country buys gas and electricity from neighboring Iran to supply about a third of its power sector, which has been worn down by years of conflict and poor maintenance, and is unable to meet the needs of the country’s 40 million population.
Last month, areas in the country’s south were plunged into darkness for several days after a series of similar attacks.
Around the same time, Iran briefly suspended its gas and electricity exports because of Iraq’s failure to pay a $6 billion energy debt.
The US blacklisted Iran’s energy industry in late 2018 as it ramped up sanctions, but has granted Baghdad a series of temporary waivers, hoping that Iraq would wean itself off Iranian energy.
The failure of Iraq’s power system is particularly acute in the baking hot summer months, often a time of social protest exacerbated by electricity shortages, when temperatures shoot past 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).
Energy consultant Harry Istepanian said factors contributing to Iraq’s energy crisis included not only the Iranian export suspension but also a “lack of enough generation capacity and fuel supply, lack of maintenance of the existing generation units, high demand... high technical and commercial losses, vandalism and sabotage.”


Lebanon's Mikati says slow progress achieved toward forming government

Lebanon's Mikati says slow progress achieved toward forming government
Updated 05 August 2021

Lebanon's Mikati says slow progress achieved toward forming government

Lebanon's Mikati says slow progress achieved toward forming government

Lebanon's OPM designate Mikati says slow progress achieved toward forming government after meeting president.


Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz threatens Iran with military action

The comments by Benny Gantz (pictured) come as Israel meanwhile lobbies countries for action at the United Nations over last week’s attack on the oil tanker Mercer Street that killed two people. (Reuters/File Photo)
The comments by Benny Gantz (pictured) come as Israel meanwhile lobbies countries for action at the United Nations over last week’s attack on the oil tanker Mercer Street that killed two people. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 56 min 20 sec ago

Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz threatens Iran with military action

The comments by Benny Gantz (pictured) come as Israel meanwhile lobbies countries for action at the United Nations over last week’s attack on the oil tanker Mercer Street that killed two people. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Gantz responded to whether Israel was prepared to attack Iran with a blunt “yes”

TEL AVIV: Israel’s defense minister warned Thursday that his country is prepared to strike Iran, issuing the threat against the Islamic Republic after a fatal drone strike on a oil tanker at sea that his nation blamed on Tehran.
The comments by Benny Gantz come as Israel meanwhile lobbies countries for action at the United Nations over last week’s attack on the oil tanker Mercer Street that killed two people. The tanker, struck off Oman in the Arabian Sea, is managed by a firm owned by an Israeli billionaire.
The US and the United Kingdom similarly blamed Iran for the attack, but no country has offered evidence or intelligence to support their claims. Iran, which along with its regional militia allies has launched similar drone attacks, has denied being involved.
Speaking to the news website Ynet, Gantz responded to whether Israel was prepared to attack Iran with a blunt “yes.”
“We are at a point where we need to take military action against Iran,” Gantz said. “The world needs to take action against Iran now.”
Iran did not immediately respond to Gantz’s comments. However, in a letter Wednesday to the UN Security Council, its chargé d’affaires in New York described Israel as “the main source of instability and insecurity in the Middle East and beyond for more than seven decades.”
“This regime has a long dark record in attacking commercial navigation and civilian ships,” Zahra Ershadi wrote. “In less than two years, this regime has attacked over 10 commercial vessels carrying oil and humanitarian goods destined to Syria.”
Ershadi’s comments refer to an ongoing shadow war being waged on Mideast waterways since 2019 that has seen both Iranian and Western-linked ships attacked.
Last week’s attack killed the vessel’s Romanian captain as well as a British crew member who worked for Ambrey, a maritime security firm. In a statement Thursday, Ambrey identified the victim as Adrian Underwood, a former soldier in the British Army who started at the firm as a maritime security officer in 2020 before becoming a team leader.
“We continue to be in contact with Adrian’s family to offer support at this sad and difficult time,” said John Thompson, Ambrey’s management director.
The attacks began a year after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Iran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. President Joe Biden has said he’s willing to rejoin the accord, but talks over salvaging the deal have stalled in Vienna.


Fears grow for Iranian dual-national prisoners ahead of Raisi inauguration

Fears grow for Iranian dual-national prisoners ahead of Raisi inauguration
Updated 05 August 2021

Fears grow for Iranian dual-national prisoners ahead of Raisi inauguration

Fears grow for Iranian dual-national prisoners ahead of Raisi inauguration
  • Iranian news outlets quote official as saying Tehran has “no incentive” for prisoner exchanges
  • UK govt spokesman: “Iran’s continued arbitrary detention of our dual nationals is unacceptable”

LONDON: Iranian media reports that Tehran has cooled interest in prisoner swaps with Western nations has thrown into doubt the release of British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and future relations between the two countries.

The Nour news website quoted a senior Iranian official on Tuesday as saying Tehran had “no incentive” to proceed with proposed prisoner transfers with the US, and a plan with the UK to exchange Zaghari-Ratcliffe for £400 million ($557 million) owed as part of a failed arms deal in 1979 had stalled after London also sought the release of environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, who holds both UK and US citizenship, as part of the negotiations. 

The shift in policy is thought to stem from the impending inauguration of new hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, which is set to take place on Thursday. 

He is accused by a multitude of international bodies of serious human rights violations — including murder, enforced disappearance and torture — during his tenure as head of Iran’s judiciary.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at Imam Khomeini International Airport in 2016 on charges of espionage, and imprisoned for “plotting to topple the Iranian government.”

She has repeatedly been denied representation from the UK in her dealings with the Iranian court system, and was sentenced to a further year in prison in April on propaganda charges. She has always denied all allegations made against her.

On Wednesday, an Iranian court sentenced another British-Iranian, Mehran Raouf, to over 10 years in prison on charges of undermining the regime, alongside German-Iranian Nahid Taghavi.

Iran has been accused of engaging in “hostage diplomacy” to achieve various political ends. A UK government spokesman told the Daily Telegraph: “Iran’s continued arbitrary detention of our dual nationals is unacceptable. We urge the Iranian authorities to release the detainees without any further delay.”