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KAUST ties up with UA for sustainable farming

Last updated: Saturday, December 08, 2012 12:56 AM

JEDDAH — Faculty members from the University of Arizona (UA) College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are teaming up with partners at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in a sustainable farming effort amid growing challenges in meeting the three basic needs – food, clean water and energy.

The KAUST has turned to the UA – a leading institution in arid lands studies – for expertise in the creation of the Desert Agriculture Research Institute.

Kevin Fitzsimmons, director of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences International Programs and an expert in aquaculture, said the partnership is expected to result in groundbreaking research that can aid in developing sustainable farming, water and living systems without damaging the ecosystem.

“Much of this research could impact a good portion of the globe,’’ said Fitzsimmons, who recently visited the KAUST. He has visited the new university four times, most recently in October. “Desert seacoasts and arid countries have the highest population growth rates across the planet. We need to find ways to feed, house, employ and find energy for millions and millions of people in exactly those areas.”

Collaborative study at the Desert Agriculture Research Institute is likely to benefit the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, the US Southwest and Mexico, Fitzsimmons said. “The more we can develop sustainable, productive farming and energy for people in these countries will be to everyone’s benefit.”

KAUST expects to install greenhouses and fish tanks early in 2013 as part of the first phase of the $60 million project.

The UA is contributing expertise but no funding for the project, with KAUST providing for all expenses. The university, which opened in 2009, was developed with an endowment from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in conjunction with the Arabian-American Oil Company.

KAUST and the UA recently approved a memorandum of agreement to increase collaborations across several areas of research and outreach. The agreement could help qualify the Desert Agriculture Research Institute for significant grants to further research, Fitzsimmons said.

The UA has a history of collaboration with agricultural communities in arid regions around the world – including Saudi Arabia – dating back to the 1950s.

Through this most recent collaboration, UA faculty members and students are expected to study solar energy, desalinization of seawater, greenhouse food production, farming on desert coastlines and shrimp and fish farming.

KAUST has “virtually scoured the planet for top faculty’’ from the Middle East as well as the US, Korea, China, Canada, Spain and England, Fitzsimmons said.

UA faculty and students benefit from the partnership “in being able to work with an institution that has state-of-the-art equipment and is conducting state-of-the-art science,’’ Fitzsimmons said.

He is advising on the creation of sustainable shrimp farms and caged fish farming in the Red Sea. He has worked with farmers to integrate seaweeds that absorb nutrients from shrimp waste to create a more sustainable farming method.

“This is something I pioneered in Indonesia after the tsunami – trying to restore the industry and make it more sustainable as we rebuild Sumatra,’’ he said.

Creating sustainable methods of shrimp farming and cage farming of amberjacks, snappers, groupers, small tunas and other fish will create food for people and jobs for fishermen while protecting the Red Sea, Fitzsimmons said.

Edward Glenn, professor of soil, water and environmental science at the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has helped KAUST to obtain halophytes – plants that tolerate high salinity and can be raised as crops irrigated with seawater. One idea is to utilize effluent from shrimp farms to grow plant crops that can be used for direct human consumption, animal forage, or vegetable oil.

Murat Kacira, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is advising KAUST on designing efficient, sustainable greenhouses for growing crops in arid and semi-arid lands.

The world’s first scientific experiments on organic agriculture started in the 1950s. Since then, the sector has seen immense development.

Within the past 10 years, the area of land devoted to organic agriculture has increased from 15 million to 37 million hectares. — SG

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