Every year, an area of fertile land roughly half the size of Britain becomes desert. This process, known as desertification, isn’t usually caused by one single factor, but the usual suspects make an appearance every time: climate change, deforestation and poor agricultural practices. 1/5th of the world’s arable land is under threat from desertification.
With desertification likely to become an even greater issue in the future, it is time to start looking at possible ways combat it. Reclaiming the desert is often a costly action few countries immediately affected by it can afford to pursue. The alternative, while also expensive, may be the best chance many of these countries, and in future the world, has to thrive. So, what if you could grow food in the desert?
Firstly, let’s dispel a myth — you can’t grow anything in sand. Numerous forms of plants will grow in sand, as long as they can source water and are able to tolerate the extreme heat, wind, sandstorms and occasional torrential rains found in deserts (particularly the Sahara), plants will grow. Unfortunately for us, a few wild plants cannot sustain a population, so for all intents and purposes, deserts appear to us to be barren.
Much of the problem comes from the sand itself. We’re not used to thinking about sand as a kind of soil, but it’s simply on the extreme end of the spectrum. The main issues come from two things. Sand isn’t very good at holding water, the particles are simply too big, so the water just runs off and isn’t absorbed as it is with soil, thus starving the plants of water. The second issue with sand is its lack of organic matter. Most sand is less than 1% organic matter, which is defined as organic material (plants and animal residues) in different stages of decomposition. This organic material feeds micro-organisms, which in turn create nutrients that are then utilised by the plants in their survival.
All this combined with the high temperatures, the weak structure of sand at holding roots and the high winds constantly trying to rip away the plants, make desert farming a huge challenge — but perhaps not an impossible one though.
Algeria is the largest country in Africa at 2,381,740 square kilometres (919,590 square miles). Unfortunately for Algeria, around 80% of that land is in the Sahara Desert and essentially uninhabited.
Instability in the region following the Western Saharan War from 1975–1976 led to the creation of the Sahrawi Refugee camps, which today house between 90,000 and 165,000 (the exact number remains disputed by all parties involved, but the UN toady recognises 90,000 individuals).
For decades, the refugees were dependent on the United Nations World Food Programme for food aid and to a large part they still are, but steps are being taken to reduce that dependence in the camps.
Here, growing plants in sand is possible thanks to hydroponics — a type of farming that grows plants in ‘inert mediums’ like packing peanuts, gravel and sand. Put simply, it is plants being farmed using nothing but water and a mineral nutrient solution. It vastly reduces the amount of water required to farm, which often has to be brought in by the literal truck load and at a high price.
The refugee camps and UNWFE have been successful in growing a strain of local barley in greenhouses, which is used as fodder to feed to the animals in the camp, noticeably increasing their dairy output, as well as the quality of the meat, and thus supplementing the diets of the refugees.
Though steps are being taken to reduce the cost, this remains relatively expensive and is far from providing enough food to support the camps. It is certainly a step in the right direction, but it’s still in its infancy.
For a country that dared to try and tame the Sahara though, we need look no further than Egypt. At approximately 90% desert, Egyptians have always stayed close to the Nile, the life blood of the country. Evidence of agriculture in the Nile Delta has been dated to as far back as 8000 BC, so it would seem the Egyptians have already mastered the desert sands, but unfortunately the Egypt of today is very different than the Egypt of 10,000 years ago.
The population today has swelled to nearly 90 million, four times as many as in 1945. Egypt simply does not have the enough agricultural land to feed its people, and so the country that was once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire now imports 50% of its food from abroad.
The New Valley Project aimed to change that. It was one of the most ambitious construction projects ever created and has its roots in the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in the 1990s. It aimed to add approximately 1.5 million acres of farmland to Egypt. Following his deposition in the 2011 Arab Spring, the project was frozen, but recently it has been revived.
The project aims to deal with arguably the most difficult part of growing plants in the desert — the lack of water. The New Valley Project and other desert reclamation projects undertaken by the Egyptian government solved this by either creating an elaborate system of canals and pumping systems to syphon water from the Nile River and Lake Nasser, or by pumping up ground water from below the surface.
So, did it work? Well, not really, no. Numerous factors plagued the projects. Firstly, a vast amount of work was needed to get the shoddily constructed canals up to standard, which increased the costs of the project exponentially. Next was the issue of pumping up ground water. The vast quantities required expected to have a drastic impact on the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, the source of the water. Essentially, it was theorised that the farming would drain the aquifer, and thus the farmland would only be productive for a limited period of time.
This coupled with the fact that despite incentives, few people want to move to one of the hottest parts of the world to work on a potentially unsustainable farm has basically rendered the project a failure. A few companies have managed to stick it out at on the New Valley Project, but these companies are few and far between. It simply isn’t possible to make a profit or produce any notable amount of food in the area.
Details remain scare, but it appears the New Valley Project has been set back once more, and the term Toshka (the Egyptian name for the New Valley Project) has become a joke and a byword for failure to everyday Egyptians, seem as little more than another political stunt by the government.
Away from the Sahara in the UAE a more novel solution has been found — Liquid Clay. At 80% desert, the UAE faces the reality of ‘learn to grow food in the desert or rely on buying from abroad.’
However, an experimental farm working in conjunction with a Norwegian scientist has managed to half the water needed to farm by using the excitingly named Liquid Nano Clay. In essence, this clay and water solution is pumped a few metres below ground where it binds with the sand, creating fertile soil. It needs to be re-done every 5 years or so, depending on how the soil is being used, but it has been proven to reduce the water required to make the desert bloom.
Unfortunately, this seemingly miracle product comes at a very high cost, up to $9,500 (£6,900) per hectare. Desert Control, the company behind it, intends to sell their products to municipal governments and commercial growers but hopes to make it affordable to all growers in the future. The issue with this is that many of the countries within the Sahara Desert are incredibly poor, some of the poorest in the world. Even a low price may prove unattainable on the large scale needed to move these countries toward self-sustainability.
No easy answers
The problem of the Sahara Desert has stubbornly refused to give way for much of human history. It has acted as a natural barrier to numerous empires like the Romans and the Carthaginians.
While you can farm in the Sahara and, in isolated cases, peoples and companies are, it remains a colossal challenge. Bringing water to the desert seems to be the greatest limiting factor to growing in the Sahara. Pumping seawater and desalinating it has been done successful in Jordan on the small scale and could potentially be re-created in the Sahara, but the scale required is nothing short of daunting and de-salination technology remains prohibitively expensive for many countries today, especially those most affected by the Sahara.
In addition, in a future where food is grown in the Sahara, it will likely be the private sector, not the governments of these places that develops the scalable technology needed for the project. Naturally, those companies are going to want a payoff for their investment and so may turn to exclusively farming cash crops. This has been seen in the New Valley Project, where one of the few companies that remains appears to exclusively grow Medjool Dates, a notable cash crop.
While obviously investments in these countries should be encouraged, farming in the Sahara should ultimately make these countries less dependent on foreign investment. If companies paid for the use of the Sahara, the governments of these countries would still be forced to use that money to buy food from aboard. If the desert can be turned into an oasis, let oasis be used for the independence of those countries, not to further a cycle of dependence that leads to nothing but instability.