The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Another Kick in the Teeth for Malthus

Today we bring you something straight out of a science fiction novel: Scientists have found a way to produce nearly unlimited amounts of food in the desert, fueled by desalinated salt water and sunlight. It sounds like a pipe dream, but it’s not—it’s already happening in Australia and Qatar, and may soon spread further if these early trials deliver on their initial promise.

The Guardian explains how the system works:

Indeed, the work that Sundrop Farms, as they call themselves, are doing in South Australia, and just starting up in Qatar, is beyond the experimental stage. They appear to have pulled off the ultimate something-from-nothing agricultural feat – using the sun to desalinate seawater for irrigation and to heat and cool greenhouses as required, and thence cheaply grow high-quality, pesticide-free vegetables year-round in commercial quantities.

So far, the company has grown tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers by the tonne, but the same, proven technology is now almost ready to be extended to magic out, as if from thin air, unlimited quantities of many more crops – and even protein foods such as fish and chicken – but still using no fresh water and close to zero fossil fuels. Salty seawater, it hardly needs explaining, is free in every way and abundant – rather too abundant these days, as our ice caps melt away. . .

A 75m line of motorised parabolic mirrors that follow the sun all day focuses its heat on a pipe containing a sealed-in supply of oil. The hot oil in turn heats nearby tanks of seawater pumped up from a few metres below ground – the shore is only 100m away. The oil brings the seawater up to 160C and steam from this drives turbines providing electricity. Some of the hot water from the process heats the greenhouse through the cold desert nights, while the rest is fed into a desalination plant that produces the 10,000 litres of fresh water a day needed to keep the plants happy. The water the grower gets is pure and ready for the perfect mix of nutrients to be added. The air in the greenhouse is kept humid and cool by trickling water over a wall of honeycombed cardboard evaporative pads through which air is driven by wind and fans. The system is hi-tech all the way; the greenhouse is in a remote spot, but the grower, a hyper-enthusiastic 27-year-old Canadian, Dave Pratt, can rather delightfully control all the growing conditions for his tonnes of crops from an iPhone app if he’s out on the town – or even home in Ontario.

It’s the kind of thing an enlightened futurologist might have imagined for the 21st century, and to enter Sundrop’s greenhouse from the desert outside, passing the array of sun-tracking solar parabolic mirrors that looks like something from a film set, is to feel you’ve arrived at a template for tomorrow-world. The warm, humid air laden with the scent of ripening tomatoes is in such contrast to the harsh landscape outside, where it tops a parched 40C for much of the year, that it feels as if the more brutal sides of both nature and economics are being benignly cheated.

The technology involved is impressive, but this is more than a feat of engineering—it could save lives. If these farms can be replicated on a large scale, food may become cheaper for billions of people, and it will be less susceptible to the supply shocks and price spikes at the heart of many current food shortages. There’s something here for the greens as well: Bringing agriculture to much of today’s waste land should more than make up for the farmland lost if green predictions of rising sea levels prove to be true.

Unfortunately, the green movement is still extremely poor at recognizing a good thing when it sees it. Rather than extolling the virtues of a cheap food source with a low carbon footprint, low pesticide use, and high yields, some green purists are dismayed by the high tech used to make the system work and others are perhaps concerned that a successful program will remove the urgency from many of their doomsday predictions. But green complaints aside, this high-tech agricultural miracle just might be ready for prime time.

Every generation lots of people jump on the Malthusian bandwagon: famine, peak oil, overpopulation, resource wars. So far, the doomsayers keep getting it wrong.

Published on November 25, 2012 10:00 am