Exploring NEOM - a world-class sustainable food system and salt water-based agriculture system

We caught up with Mark Tester, Professor of Plant Science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Executive Director of the Food Sector at NEOM and co-Founder of Red Sea Farms LLC to discuss the development of NEOM

2 February 2020, Dubai, UAE

AgraME: NEOM has been touted as "the world's most ambitious project." Can you tell us a little about the plans for agricultural innovations within the new mega city?

Mark Tester: The NEOM Food Sector will build a world class sustainable food system that is secure, safe, healthy and affordable, setting an exemplar for the world as a global leader in agri-food tech innovation especially for production in challenging environments. For this, we will:

  • Produce as much locally as makes sense
    • Economically, environmentally 
    • Sustainable energy powering zero-liquid discharge desalination is central
  • Import what we cannot produce locally using sources that are as sustainable as possible 
    • Traceability, sustainability indices
  • The most innovative food system  – NEOM, the lab for food knowledge
    • Develop technologies, deliver improvements, co-evolution of technology and policy 
    • Generate IP, export technologies 

AgraME: You are also a Co-Founder of Red Sea Farms. Could you tell me a bit about this company?

Mark Tester: The aim of Red Sea Farms is to develop and deliver saltwater-based agricultural systems, substituting as much freshwater as possible with currently unused saline water, reducing pressure on currently unsustainably exploited freshwater resources and  breaking the food-water-energy nexus. The first smart saltwater agricultural system we are commercializing is the growth of salt-tolerant tomatoes in brackish water, in a greenhouse cooled using seawater, and where the roof is cleaned using no water!


AgraME: What kind of impact will ‘smart saltwater agriculture’ have on the sustainability of agriculture in the Middle East?

Mark Tester: Given water is the primary limiting factor for food production in the Middle East, and given most water used in the region is unsustainable, the ability to undertake covered agriculture with one-tenth the water consumption is a significant contribution to increase sustainability of agriculture in the Middle East.


AgraME: Which other innovations do you feel are the most promising in leading the Middle East toward a more sustainable Food industry?

Mark Tester: Agriculture currently uses three-quarters of all the water humans use, and is in the top three emitters of greenhouse gases. Both of these things have to change, and we need to deploy technologies to do this. The Middle East is very good at digital technologies, and these can be developed very well in this region, for local and global benefit. There are also many engineering and biotech innovations that can contribute.