Some Middle Eastern countries, like Qatar and United Arab Emirates, import more than 90% of their food. It's a situation that is getting more expensive, and more energy-intensive, as local cities grow. Now a team of architects hopes to create a new agricultural system that could grow food in the desert—and deliver it using a solar-powered conveyor belt instead of trucks.
OAXIS is a conceptual design for a modular set of prefab greenhouses, covered in solar panels, which would extend in a straight line into the desert away from a city. The passive design of the buildings would help keep out the intense heat of 120-degree summers, while the solar panels would power the rest of the building's infrastructure and send extra energy back into the city.
Since the designers wanted to create the smallest carbon footprint possible, they chose to forgo usual transportation and create a unique conveyor system that would deliver produce without the use of any fossil fuels. The conveyor belt would be underground so it could keep running in a straight line even if buildings were in the way.
"The project aims to be flexible enough to be interrupted and keep on sending crops to the city," explains architect Javier Ponce, principal and founder of Forward Thinking Architecture, the Barcelona-based firm behind the design.
Inside the prefab greenhouses, farmers would grow crops like tomatoes, lettuce, and strawberries using a hydroponic system that can reduce fertilizers and pesticides and save 80% of the water used in traditional agriculture, in part by recycling and reusing it.
Still, it's not clear where the water would come from; the designers suggest that groundwater could supply the farm's needs, but many Middle Eastern countries already rely on desalination.
A small part of the recycled water would also be used to create an outdoor garden—an artificial oasis—for education. "We thought it cannot only be a farming-only building, it must have a pedagogical approach and have to be attractive in order to become a biodiversity hub which can be visited by the local people and visitors," says Ponce.
Ideally, desert populations would be small enough that the region's sparse rainfall could support local crops. But that's not the reality.
"The cities should be smaller, denser, and compact, but this is not the current situation for some of the Arabian peninsula cities since they have exponentially grown and attract more people and workers," says Ponce. "There has been a rapid urbanization in the area since the middle of the 20th century."
The project, he hopes, could help supply food as climate change makes the situation even more challenging. "The OAXIS project is an alternative or complementary way to respond to the food insecurity and water scarcity of the region in a self-sufficient way," Ponce says. "It aims to help reduce the food imports to feed part of the people in a nearby future based on renewable energies."
Ponce hopes to work with local governments to bring the project to life. Already, countries in the region are desperately looking for solutions; Qatar has already invested hundreds of millions in a plan to grow as much local food as possible by 2030.