Rationale at a Glance

Desert Agriculture Initiative 
The long-term prognosis for the global climate is hotter and drier virtually everywhere but the far north and far south, albeit with increased episodic precipitation.  Warmer temperatures will move humanity’s staple crops, including cereals and legumes to and beyond their optimal temperature range in some of the world’s most populous regions and declining precipitation will decrease their photosynthetic productivity. Rising sea levels are likely to submerge productive coastal crop areas, a process that has already begun in some countries.  Water tables are also falling in Saudi Arabia, as well as worldwide, due to over-draught of aquifers for irrigation.  Mitigating climate change will necessitate decreasing reliance on energy-intensive agricultural practices, such as current water desalination and fertilizer production methods. 


All of these factors focus attention on the necessity to invest more heavily in agricultural research and to develop agricultural practices suitable for hotter and more arid conditions through the application of advanced science and technology.  It is not a foregone conclusion that our present crops can be pushed to perform much better than they do now at much higher temperatures and with much less water [Fedoroff, 2010].


Saudi Arabia’s dearth of arable land and depleting aquifers provide a strong rationale for developing alternative agricultural approaches based on seawater, while its expanse of coastal desert and engineering prowess provide the physical setting and technological expertise needed to create such a new, sustainable agriculture. KAUST’s already substantial investment in alternative energy, membranes and porous media, desalination, computational biology, and plant stress physiology make it an excellent setting to develop the knowledge, both basic and practical, needed for 21st century desert agriculture.



Fedoroff et al. (2010) Radically rethinking agriculture for the 21st century. Science 237: 833