Earth’s oceans are good for a lot of things. They generate more than half of the oxygen we need to breathe, regulate our climates and provide us with a bounty of fish for sustenance. One thing the ocean’s salty water is not so good at? Watering crops. At least it wasn’t. Startup Red Sea Farms is developing a new technology that uses saltwater to not only irrigate crops, but also help cool growing facilities in an energy efficient manner.
Based in Saudi Arabia, Red Sea Farms is affiliated with King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST). I spoke with Prof. Mark Tester, Co-Founder and CSO of Red Sea Farms, by video chat this week, and while he was pretty tight lipped about exactly how his company’s technology works, he did share the basic ideas.
In a nutshell, Red Sea Farms is able to either irrigate land crops with saltwater or grow crops hydroponically using a mixture of 90 percent saltwater and 10 percent fresh water. Right now the company is growing tomatoes through a combination of plant selection, breeding and grafting (but not genetically modifying) in such a way that developed root stocks that can grow in saltwater.
The obvious importance of this technology is that areas of the world that are now inhospitable to agriculture because of fresh water access, arable land and temperature could someday produce their own crops with the abundant (and free) sea water.
To be clear, Red Sea Farms isn’t growing tomatoes in the sea. Rather, it is bringing in sea water to either irrigate fields or into a greenhouse facility it has set up in Saudi Arabia. But that saltwater isn’t just growing the tomato plants. Red Sea Farms has also developed a way to use saltwater in its evaporative cooling system. This, plus the use of transparent solar panels at its greenhouses could be used by other growing facilities to reduce their carbon and freshwater footprints when producing food.
Red Sea Farms is already selling tomatoes and cherry tomatoes at markets in Saudi Arabia. As Tester explained, tomatoes grown in saltwater are actually sweeter than normal tomatoes because the plants produce extra sugar to overcome the salt. Additionally, the tomatoes have a slightly thicker skin, which gives them a little extra crunch and extends their shelf life.
While Red Sea Farms currently makes food, it’s an agritech company with a longer term goal to fully develop and productize its technology for licensing out to third parties.