We insist on living on parts of the earth covered by desert, rock, or ice. Because those places don’t produce their own food, feeding the people who live there requires a global network of food production and transport. For desert nations such as the Gulf States, where as much as 90% of food is imported, this is a precarious situation, and can easily lead to shortages. When that happens, and food prices skyrocket like they did between 2005 and 2008, it can lead to unrest.
Now those countries are looking to feed themselves. One strategy has been to buy up vast tracts of land in Asia and Africa to grow and export food. Another is closer to home.
Redeploying a technology designed for medical applications, Japanese researcher Yuichi Mori at Waseda University is using a plastic “hydrogel” membrane resembling Saran Wrap to grow plants on a transparent, soil-free film. The technique uses one-tenth of the water and a fraction of the fertilizer to grow the same produce as conventional agriculture. The plants are generally free of pathogens, pesticides, and pollutants such as oil or heavy metals because the membrane is selective: Water drawn up by the plant’s roots pass through it, but other compounds are left behind.
Early tests in desert greenhouses in the Middle East show tomatoes and other plants thriving on the membrane directly atop the desert sand. A small pipe irrigation system supplies water and nutrients. In a TedX talk in Tokyo, Mori said any surface will work anywhere from concrete floors to contaminated ground left behind by the 2011 tsunami in Japan. All that’s needed to start a film farm is space, sun, and nutrient-rich water.
To commercialize the technology, a Dubai-based company called Agricel is looking to plant its first “fields,” and about 180 farms are experimenting with growing techniques. If all goes well, film farms with soil-free agriculture could make the deserts bloom.