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Revolutionizing Agriculture: Sandponics - A Solution for Food Security in Desert Regions

Agriculture | May, 2023

Drylands, including vast areas of deserts cover approx. 41.3% of the Earth’s total geographical area. More than one-sixth of the world's population (around 1 billion people) live in desert areas. Food security in arid regions has always remained a concern as traditional agriculture practices are not plausible due to challenges such as infertile land, extreme temperatures, scarce or no availability of fresh water for irrigation and sandstorms. As per United Nations predictions, nearly 1.8 billion will live in regions with absolute water scarcity by 2025, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa where only 5% of total land area is arable.

As the world’s population is increasing rapidly and instability in supply chains is growing, a spike in self-sustainability and self-sufficiency has hit an all-time high. A growing shift towards sustainable food growing techniques that are more efficient and productive has led to the rising adoption of technologies, shaping modern agriculture in a way that was unfathomable before. Sandponics, also known as Integrated Aqua Vegeculture System (IAVS), is a promising cultivation system farming approach that could help satisfy demand for high-quality vegetables and address food security in desert regions. This innovative farming technique can help convert large amounts of deserts into arable lands, which would boost food production and help overcome food security.

How does Sandponics Works?

In sandponics systems, sand is used as the growing medium rather than soil or other typical substrates. Sand supports the roots of the plants as they develop in a solution of nutrient-rich water. Sandponics combines aquaponics, a technique to grow plants in water and aeroponics, a technique to grow plants in air. Besides, the system utilizes fishes to create ammonia, which further gets converted to nitrates by bacteria to serve as foods for crops and plants. To avoid introducing any contaminants or impurities that can be harmful to the plants, only washed and sterilized sand is used. The system needs a reservoir to store the nutrient solution and a water pump to move it through the sand.

Sandponics can produce more yields than conventional soil-based growing techniques since sand serves as an ideal growing medium that provides good physical support for plants, root growth, drainage, and air circulation. Since sand has a high water-retention capacity, it can hold water for extended periods, which reduces the amount of water required for plant growth. Besides, sand is cheaper, which makes it a more efficient, affordable, and low-risk technology option. They are also more environmentally benign than soil-based systems since they consume less water and nutrients.

The sand used in the sandponics system needs to be coarse and should boast a low clay content to ensure good drainage. The nutrient-rich water solution should provide the right amount of nutrients for plant growth and hence its distribution should be regularly monitored. Besides, Temperature control is also critical for plant growth, and cooling systems may be required in hot desert regions to maintain optimal temperatures.

How are Middle East & Africa Regions Overcoming Desert Farming Challenges?

Sandponics is a relatively new and developing technology, but there are already several major sandponics projects being implemented around the world.

Case Study: The Sahara Forest Project – Qatar

In Qatar, the summers are long and hot with temperatures reaching between 90- and 104-degrees Fahrenheit and the region witnesses little to no rain. The oil-rich nation relies on imports to meet 90% of their food requirements. Therefore, Sahara Forest Project (SFP) has been created to find a way to grow food sustainably using deserts, saltwater, and carbon dioxide. Despite the inhospitable conditions, the project has been successful in growing a wide variety of plants and crops, thanks to the sandponics farming technique. The 10,000 sq. mt. SFP site has been constructed on land near the capital city of Doha, adjacent to an industrial ammonia factory. The SFP pilot facility has a concentrated solar power unit, which concentrates and reflects the sun's beams using mirrors, multiplying the solar energy captured.

The solar energy is then used to power a steam turbine to produce energy for converting saltwater into freshwater. Evaporative hedge, consisting of honeycombed cardboard pads, draws hot desert air and the saltwater running down them creates a cooler and humid air in the greenhouse and nearby plots of land. This way, maintaining optimal temperature in the greenhouse facilitates year-round cultivation in the facility. The greenhouses can produce as much as a European farm but are powered by sunlight and seawater, which makes the whole cultivation process sustainable. Moreover, the evaporative hedges concentrate the seawater flowing through them. The freshwater filtered from hedges and distilled in the desalination plant can be used for irrigation and drinking purposes.

According to TechSci Research report on “Middle East & Africa Desert Farming Market, By Technique (Greenhouse, Hydroponics, Nano clay, Hydrogels, Others), By Crop Type (Dates, Alfalfa, Eggplant, Peppers, Tomatoes, Melon, Others), By Country, Competition Forecast & Opportunities, 2028”, the Middle East & Africa desert farming market is anticipated to grow at a formidable rate during the forecast period. The market growth can be attributed to the rising demand for food security by producing crops in areas vulnerable to droughts and other weather-related events. Besides, rising initiatives by the government to enhance food security by incorporating technologies for practicing sustainable farming techniques are some of the factors contributing to the Middle East & Africa desert farming market.

Technologies Enabling Sustainable Agricultural Practices in Desert

  • Liquid NanoClay

Sandy deserts can now be turned into productive farmlands with the new technology created by the Norwegian startup Desert Control. Combining irrigation water and clay, scientists have generated Liquid NanoClay (LNC), which can be applied to sandy soil using conventional irrigation methods like sprinklers or water waggons. The individual clay flakes form a Van der Waals bond with the surface of the sand particles, and the mixture percolates the soil down to root depth (often 30 to 60 cm). This greatly improves the soil's capacity to hold onto nutrients and water as well as host fungi that support plant growth, resulting in more favorable soil conditions. Furthermore, the natural process of regeneration from dry to arable land typically takes between 7 and 15 years. However, the LNC application only takes 7 hours to penetrate into the land. In a UAE trial conducted on the use of Liquid NanoClay for planting, 5 months after sowing seeds, the plot got filled with many rows of green leaves, freshly grown fruits and vegetables, which would have been otherwise difficult on sand. 

The technology of liquid nanoclay would be a successful option for enhancing food security of many countries in the future. LNC can also be used in initiatives to reclaim degraded and desertified land in an effort to reduce climate change in addition to enhancing agricultural and food production.

  • Hydrogel

Less nutrients are present in the soils of dry lands. Scientists have discovered a means to make these conditions favorable for the growth of trees and other perennial crops. They have developed superabsorbent polymers, known as hydrogels, that absorb water in sandy soils to keep the dry soil wet for a plant’s survival for a longer period of time. Application of hydrogels can increase the water retention capacity of sandy soil by up to 40%. Hence, SAPs offer a sustainable, low-cost strategy to enhance food and water security for people in arid or semi-arid regions. A solar-powered system developed by Saudi Arabia researchers successfully produces spinach using water sucked from the atmosphere while generating electricity. The WEC2P system consists of a solar photovoltaic panel mounted on top of a hydrogel layer that is positioned on top of a sizable metal box to condense and collect water. The hydrogel has the ability to efficiently absorb water vapor from the surrounding air and release the water content when heated. In order to force absorbed water out of the hydrogel, the researchers utilised the waste heat produced when solar panels generate power. The vapour is captured and turned into water by condensation in the metal box below. Instead, by absorbing heat and bringing down the temperature of the solar photovoltaic panels, the hydrogel raises efficiency by up to 9%.

Turkish firm Soyl-Gel has also created a multipurpose hydrogel for irrigating crops in dry desert environments. The startup's super-absorbent polymer contains natural clay nanotubes enriched with essential active ingredients for crop health promotion. The nano compounds release the water efficiently over a lengthy time, and benefit the soil nutrition, conserves water, and protects the plants, among other things.

  • Desert Soilisation with Eco-friendly Paste

Chinese scientists Zhijian Yi and Chaohua Zhao from the Department of Mechanics at Chongqing Jiaotong University have developed a special paste composed of a “modified sodium carboxymethyle cellulose (CMC) solution” that has the potential to turn deserts into farmlands. CMCs are non-toxic, cost-effective, and environmental-friendly solution that can greatly enhance the ability of sand to hold water, minerals, air, microbes, and other essential nutrients. Mixing the solution into the sand and watering it thoroughly makes the paste bind everything together and thus convert the mixture into viable soil, ideal for growing crops and plants.

The eco-friendly paste can retain water, support nutrients, which can help plants to grow. As a part of experiment, researchers applied this paste to a 1.6-hectare sandy area in the Mongolian Autonomous Region's Ulan Buh Desert. The implementation of this paste eventually led to the development of a productive farmland that could produce maize, tomatoes, rice, watermelons, sunflowers and other crops. The plants grown in the sandy plot, according to the Chinese researchers, produced greater crop yields while requiring the same amount of water as crops grown in ordinarily arable soils. Additionally, less fertiliser was required to produce the crops than is typically needed for the growth of vegetables in other soils.

Hydroponics: Growing Food with Minimal Water

In hydroponics system, plants are held in place by a liquid solution and common hydro grow media such as clay pebbles, coco, perlite, sand, and rockwool. This helps the plants to find nutrients directly at the roots through a recirculating solution, or with sprayers/drippers so that hydro plants grow bigger and faster. Some of the latest technologies used in hydroponics systems are as follows.

  • Aeroponics

This system uses misting nozzles to spray a nutrient solution directly onto the roots of the plants. It requires precise control of the nutrient solution's composition and the misting frequency and duration. The nutrient solution is recycled, resulting in healthier, faster-growing, and more productive plants that use less water overall. Crops are less susceptible to pests and plant diseases thanks to the approach. In a greenhouse, aeroponic farming can make advantage of natural light, but artificial light is frequently needed to ensure plant health. AeroFarms, one of the biggest operators of aeroponic farms in the world with vertical farms in the US, just built a research farm in Abu Dhabi. Aeroponics is over 390 times more effective in terms of land utilization to grow the same volume of crops, providing up to 26 harvests annually, according to the company, and its farms use just 1% of the land required for conventional agriculture. Barton Breeze, one of India's biggest hydroponic and aeroponic farmers, claims to have nearly 10 hectares of vertical farms in operation, generating 3,250 tonnes of crops from more than 65 different crop species.

  • Deep Water Culture

In this system, plants are suspended in nutrient-rich water, and an air pump provides oxygen to the roots. Sensors are used to monitor water temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, and pH. The rich amount of oxygen allows the plants to uptake the maximum amount of nutrition, which results in more accelerated and prolific plant growth. Improved water absorption and cell proliferation within the plants are both results of aerating the roots. Additionally, since the plants are suspended in the nutrients of the deep-water culture, little fertilizer is required. Finally, DWC hydroponics systems are easy to maintain and have a straightforward design whereas nozzles, feeder lines, or water pumps can become clogged. Agrilution, a German startup has developed an indoor hydroponic garden called "Plantcube", which uses a DWC method to grow a variety of herbs and vegetables in a small space. GroBox, a California-based startup, has developed a smart hydroponic system for home use and includes features such as automatic nutrient dosing and pH control.

  • Ebb and flow

In this system, a thin film of nutrient solution flows over the roots of the plants, providing them with the necessary nutrients. Ebb and Flow, commonly referred to as flood and drain, is a hydroponic growing technique that involves nutrient-rich water being flooded into the plant roots and then allowed to drain away. This process is repeated several times a day. Plants are typically grown in a tray or container that is placed over a reservoir of fertilizer solution in an ebb and flow arrangement. The water is flooded into the tray by a pump and then allowed to drain back into the reservoir. The plants get the essential nutrients and oxygen thanks to this cycle of flooding and drainage. The ebb and flow system's ability to provide a high level of control over the expanding population is one of its advantages.

  • Drip irrigation

In this system, a slow drip of nutrient solution is delivered to the plants through tubing. An automated controller regulates the amount and timing of the nutrient solution delivery. This kind of setup has been widely used to deliver water and nutrients to plants in outdoor gardening setups for improving water efficiency. The slow dripping action ensures that plants use regulated amount of water, which makes commercial operations prefer drip hydroponics over other systems.

According to TechSci Research report on “Global Hydroponics MarketBy Type (Aggregate Systems v/s Liquid Systems), By Equipment (HVAC, LED grow light, Control systems, Irrigation systems, Material handling, Others), By Input (Nutrient v/s Growth Media), By Farming Method (Indoor v/s Outdoor), By Crop Area (up 1000 Square feet, 1000-5000 Square feet, 5001-10000 Square feet, 10000-50000 Square feet, Above 50000 Square feet), By Crop Type (Vegetables, Fruits, Flowers, Others), By Company, By Region, Forecast & Opportunities, 2028 2027”, the global hydroponics market is projected to grow at a significant rate. The market growth can be attributed to advancements in hydroponics technique and rising initiatives by government to strengthen food security in their regions.

How is Vertical Farming Strengthening Food Security in Arid Regions?

Growing crops in vertical layers under artificial lighting and climatic control, commonly in metropolitan environments, is known as vertical farming. This type of farming method combines hydroponics, aeroponics, and automation to produce food in a regulated environment. Due to its high efficiency and capacity to produce crops year-round, regardless of the weather or season, it has grown in popularity as a sustainable method of growing crops. Vertical farming can be used to create a controlled environment for growing crops in places where traditional farming is not feasible because of the harsh climate and lack of water, like in the instance of transforming deserts into arable lands. These farms are able to grow crops without the use of soil or conventional irrigation techniques because they have a closed system with exact control over temperature, humidity, and light.

Furthermore, vertical farms use advanced technologies such as hydroponics and aeroponics, which allow plants to grow without soil and with very little water. This makes vertical farming a sustainable solution for growing crops in arid areas, as it requires much less water than traditional farming. UAE’s biggest indoor farming company, Badia Farms produces vegetables 3.5 million tonnes of food daily including chives, wasabi, lettuce, and many other local and non-local plants as well as fruits.

In Dubai, Emirates Flight Catering and Crop One Holdings unveiled a vertical farm with a capacity to produce more than 2 million pounds of greens yearly in 2022. In the same year, Oishii Berry started a 74,000 square foot farm in New Jersey in May 2022 with the sole purpose of growing strawberries. Furthermore, Gotham Greens obtained USD310 million in Series E funding in September 2022 in order to run 13 hydroponic greenhouses with more than 40 acres of growing space by 2023.

Recently, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) and US-based AeroFarms has entered into an agreement to build and operate indoor vertical farms in Saudi Arabia and wider MENA region to boost food supply through increased production of sustainable and locally produced high-quality crops all year round. The first farm in Saudi Arabia is projected to be the largest indoor vertical farm with an annual production capacity of up to 1.1 million kgs of agricultural crops. The partnership is in line with PIF's strategy, which emphasises strengthening and enabling key industries' capacities, including those in food and agriculture. These capabilities will help Saudi Arabia's trade balance, localize technologies, grow its industries, and diversify its economy overall.

  • Rise of Automated Vertical Farms

Artificial intelligence, along with technology and automation, can provide predictable yields and constant plant performance without the risks of human mistake and the high labour costs associated with conventional farming techniques. In automated vertical farming systems, dispensing technology is used to plant seeds into a seedbed precisely, which are then cultivated under a lighting system until they are big enough to be replanted as seedlings. These seedlings are then moved and placed into hydroponic or aeroponic beds without being damaged using robots. Automated watering/lighting/fertilizing systems are installed that provide optimal water, lightning, and nutrition to the soil for further growth of plants. Vision systems with cameras and thermal detectors monitor crops more effectively than human beings and process data efficiently to process it for regulating heat, cooling, and lightning. The automated system allows robots to pick the crops from the vertical farming beds and slice them accordingly. Companies like CambridgeHOK offer completely automated vertical farming solutions and offer engineering, automation, and energy-efficient advice. Fully automated, scalable, regulated, and monitored robotic growing systems are offered by Canadian startup Inno-3B. Additionally, it provides in-the-moment assistance and can support regional organic food, herb, and berry production. Due to the enormous potential of vertical farming solutions, many other businesses are also making investments in them.

  • VCs Plow Money into Indoor Farming Startups

Private investment in indoor farming has increased significantly in recent years, with over USD1.6 billion invested in the US alone. The expansion of indoor farming businesses and increased financial support for the production of locally sourced, sustainable foods have also helped the sector become more profitable and well-known. Venture capital firms see indoor farming as the future of agriculture. Indoor farms that use hydroponics, temperature control, and controlled settings can better protect crops from pests and weather disturbances, which would lead to higher ROI. Since the innovative farming approach has the potential to transform one of humankind's oldest traditions, indoor farming has become a venture capital cash crop. Plenty, a vertical farming company based in San Francisco, raised USD400 million by JS Capital Management and One Madison Group for its indoor farming tech. Another startup, Gotham Greens pegged USD310 million investment from Ares Management and BMO Capital Markets for its urban tech. Korean AgTech startup, ioCrops raised USD6.9 million for its autonomous greenhouse technology.

As startups continue to innovate and introduce new technologies for advancing indoor farming, more investments could be expected in the years to come. In the first half of 2022, approximately USD1.5 billion was invested globally in vertical farming. The advent of indoor farming companies and the push on industry participants to embrace improved farming practises and technology as a result of the implementation of the European Common Agricultural Policy have both contributed to the growing trend of vertical farming.

According to TechSci Research report on “Vertical Farming Market- Global Industry Size, Share, Trends, Opportunity, and Forecast, 2018-2028F Segmented By Structure (Building Based, Container-Based), By Growing Mechanism (Hydroponics, Aeroponics, Aquaponics), By Crop Type (Leafy Green, Pollinated Plants, Nutraceutical Plants), By Component (Lighting, Hydroponic Component, Climate Control, Sensors, Others), By Application (Indoor, Outdoor), By Region”, the global vertical farming market is projected to grow at a formidable rate. The market growth can be attributed to the rising demand for healthy and safe foods.

Smart Agriculture: Gamechanger for Sustainable Farming Practices

Digitalization in agriculture can aid in the efficient and sustainable use of resources, allowing farmers to maximize the productivity of their crops with the least amount of negative environmental impact. The cutting-edge equipment and computerized tools and other digital solutions are gradually changing the agricultural sector. Data from digital agriculture solutions enable effective decision-making, which leads to enhanced farm productivity. For instance, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are rapidly being employed in digital agriculture to increase operational effectiveness, crop output, and crop field monitoring. UAV technology uses distant sensing and imagery to find fungus infestations, irrigation issues, and variations in the soil. Infrared photographs can reveal details about the health of the plants. Healthy plants appear red in the photos because they contain more chlorophyll. Sensors aboard the most advanced tractors and harvesters, in addition to satellites and drones, provide crucial information on soil quality and plant health.

  • Growing Role of 3D printing in Agriculture

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing technology is playing a significant role in the agriculture sector, making operations easier for farmers, and resulting in improved productivity. These 3D printed tools are frequently utilized to plant crops because they can dramatically enhance the procedure by boosting efficiency and customization. These devices are made rapidly, effectively, and remotely to provide advantages on all fronts, including energy and financial savings. For instance, 3D printers can produce polymer pipes, which can easily plant the seeds and ensure an efficient and eco-friendly way to deal with common irrigation issues.

  • Predicting Yields with AI and Computer Vision

The yield of a crop has historically been difficult to forecast until the crop has been harvested due to a number of variables, including weather and pest activity. However, the increased application of sensors and data analytics can help predict crop yields with accuracy. Forecasts help farmers reduce waste by allowing them to plan their produce. With growing concerns regarding food security, farmers are shifting to new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Computer Vision (CV) to predict the crop yield. These advanced tools provide real-time data and insights on crop growth, soil quality and health, impact of weather conditions on crop health, etc. This helps the farmers to make informed decisions pertaining to planting, irrigation, fertilization, etc. For instance, computer vision can help one identify crop diseases, schedule pest infestations, which might prevent significant damage in the long-term.

Saline Agriculture Using Nuclear Technologies

Globally, salinization of soil is happening for a variety of reasons. Irrigation is a significant contributor to salinity. Irrigation causes high rates of continual evaporation and transpiration, which draw salts up from the soil's depths and contaminate agricultural land. Besides, the transition from forest to farmland causes salt from groundwater to enter the soil in arid areas. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have collaborated to support ten countries in the region that are experiencing severe salinization in their efforts to improve soil, water, and crop management practices through the use of nuclear and isotopic techniques. Scientists from Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen are now applying nuclear and isotopic techniques to grow crop in saline soils. These techniques involve the use of soil moisture neutrons, which enable scientists to monitor soil moisture levels. Besides, the nitrogen-15 isotopic technique helps to track down how crops are responding or taking up fertilizers. The information produced by these procedures enables farmers to determine the proper type and quantity of fertilizer and water needed. The physical and chemical characteristics of the soil can be improved over time with the use of the proper irrigation water, as the accumulated salt is washed off, allowing a larger variety of crops to sprout and develop. Farmers in participating nations have thus been able to grow a variety of crops with success and reach high output levels. Millet in Lebanon, barley and safflower in Jordan, and quinoa in the United Arab Emirates are a few examples.

Way Ahead

Desert Farming has the potential to make the globe exponentially more food secure as some of the earth’s most barren lands hold the key to a greener and more abundant future. The GCC nations, which are ahead in transforming deserts into arable lands with sustainable technologies, may emerge as pathbreaking innovators. Many of the problems that traditional farming faces, including as shorter growing seasons, restricted access to land and resources, and environmental concerns, may be resolved by vertical farming. However, despite its benefits, vertical farming has not gained much popularity because of the high implementation costs and the lack of available technologies. Additionally, the techniques utilised to grow vertically tend to be more labour- and skill-intensive than conventional techniques. As a result, many farmers may find it challenging to justify the expense due to the cost and complexity of installing vertical farming. Besides, vertical farming has not yet been successful in growing staples such as wheat or rice since these crops require large amounts of space and large-scale farming methods. Hence, more sustainable technologies and practices need to be developed to counter the challenges associated with vertical farming.

According to TechSci Research report on “Global Saline Agriculture Market By Water Source (Seawater, Brackish Water, Sewage, Others), By Technology (Saltwater Aquaponics, Saltwater Hydroponics, Saltwater Greenhouse, Others), By Crop Type (High Yielding Halophytes, Oilseeds, Fuel Wood & Timber, Others), By Application (Ornamental v/s Environmental Protection), By Region, Competition Forecast and Opportunities, 2028”, the global saline agriculture market is anticipated to grow at a formidable rate. The market growth can be attributed to the rapidly increasing global population and rising demand to supply food to everyone.