Despite the hellish conditions—baking heat and a complete lack of shade, to name the most obvious—it is actually possible to grow crops directly in the desert. You just need time, patience, and industrial quantities of water.
Which is to say that desert farming is not a viable route for most communities. Water is increasingly scarce the world over—the result of rising temperatures, growing population and an over-exploitation of water resources.
And, unless we do something drastic, this scarcity will worsen.
The UN, which this week celebrated its World Day to combat drought and desertification, warns that 24 billion tonnes of fertile land are lost every year. By 2045, it estimates that 135 million people will be displaced as a result of desertification.
Kristian P. Olesen, a scientist from Norway, knows this. And since 2005 he’s been working on a solution which is so effective—and so futuristic in appearance—that it’s hard to believe that it hasn’t been lifted straight from science fiction.
Olesen’s company Desert Control manufactures ‘LNC’, or liquid nanoclay, a spray that can convert dry land into fertile soil. The natural process of regeneration, from dry to arable land, takes around seven years; Desert Control says it can achieve the same benefits in seven hours.
There’s lots of clever science involved in the product’s development, but the central innovation is that once applied, the LNC seeps through the sand, binding just one layer of clay around every particle of sand. The clay, therefore, spreads out evenly over a 40cm area, creating a sponge that absorbs water and keeps nutrition—perfect for growing crops.
Desert Control claims that if LNC were used on just 1% of the land targeted for regeneration, more than 25 million tonnes of CO2 would be captured each year.
“The treatment gives sand particles a clay coating which completely changes their physical properties and allows them to bind with water,” Olesen told the BBC.
“This process doesn’t involve any chemical agents. We can change any poor-quality sandy soils into high-yield agricultural land in just seven hours.”
The problem, as with every major invention, is its price. In general, small farmers in dry areas that would most benefit from the application of LNC are also those least able to invest in the product.
Nevertheless, Desert Control says the prices pay for themselves over time. One application of LNC lasts for five years, reducing the quantity of water used by up to 65%.
As science advances, it becomes increasingly possible to grow crops in different environments. But, if we’re to stop desertification—and empower local communities in the process—people have to be given the tools to harvest crops, however dry the area they find themselves in. LNC is sitting, waiting in the wings, ready to be this solution.
Kristian P. Olesen