How Neom is leading Saudi Arabia's sustainable agriculture goals

Topian seeks to redefine food production, distribution and consumption through the creation of sustainable food solutions

Divers can see an array of coral reefs and an abundance of diverse marine wildlife off the coast of Neom, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Neom
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Neom, Saudi Arabia's futuristic multibillion-dollar mega city, has grabbed headlines across the world for its audacious engineering vision – a vast, single-structure conurbation spanning 170 kilometres near beautiful coastline, powered entirely by renewables.

But the brainchild of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will also feature a range of food security projects, encompassing everything from desert agriculture to "farm-to-fork" sustainability.

The effort brings in award-winning Italian chef Norbert Niederkofler and Paolo Ferretti, and encompasses everything from environmental welfare to improved diets, what they call "sustainable gastronomy".

They are the founders of sustainable food venture Neom Care, which was recently launched at Mr Niederkofler's three-Michelin starred restaurant in Bruneck, Italy.

Alongside Topian – a sustainable agriculture specialist company – they hope Neom will become a hub for 21st-century food culture, with the environment at its heart.

"We are lucky to be able to work on this economic diversification project by tackling some of the key challenges that humanity is facing around liveability, around nature conservation and challenges affecting us every day such as climate change," says Juan Carlos Motamayor, chief executive of Topian, to The National.

He says climate change is a major factor "because in terms of food production, we rely in the kingdom – as in the GCC – on imports, with around 70-80 per cent of the food that we consume. And that is not sustainable for many reasons."

He said one the main reasons for this is emissions, including greenhouse gases.

"Emissions from the food industry come from transportation, but also because that leaves us exposed to significant supply issues, as we have seen with destruction of supply chains, with pandemics, then with the war in Ukraine.

"But more importantly, because climate change itself has an impact on production of food. And most people don't realise that."

He praised incredible technological progress in producing food in extreme conditions, including in desert climates.

"This has come to the fore this week in the Cop28 meeting and we would like to pioneer this for the kingdom."

He said Neom believes desert agriculture tech will be a global focus in coming years, beyond Saudi Arabia and the GCC, because of climate change.

"So that's one of the issues we're talking about, localisation of food production. And Topian – a new food company launched by Neom – has a business unit around agriculture, alternative meat and alternative dairy."

He said there was a space for products to be localised in the kingdom that are alternatives to water-intensive products – certain crops, such as avocado, tree nuts and sugar cane, use far more water than others. Their focus, however, also extends to fish farming.

"So, for example, the kingdom has a target of localising around 600,000 tonnes of seafood production, with a push to increase consumption of seafood because it is healthy and very sustainable to produce.

"And we will be contributing 80,000 tonnes of the fish from that target from Mewa [Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture]. So that's the target for business units in Topian."

He said one of the objectives is to help consumers make healthier food choices, not only for the Neom community, but for the rest of the kingdom.

"That's what Topian does. And there are products that from a water standpoint are not sustainable to produce, such as oranges.

"From the regenerative aquaculture business unit, fish will be produced in the land and sea using multiple technologies. Then we have, in agriculture, we have fruits and vegetables produced in greenhouses or other controlled-environment production systems, as well as in open fields."

Saudi desert farming ambition

Neom announced the launch of Topian Food Company with the aim of creating sustainable systems to boost food security in the kingdom. The company will work on five critical challenges: agriculture resistant to climate change, sustainable food supplies, regenerative aquaculture (ocean farming), new food products and customised nutrition.

Working with Mewa, the project is part of Saudi Vision 2030, which aims to rapidly diversify the country's economy to boost non-oil wealth. It incorporates the kingdom's efforts to ensure food security and mitigate climate change.

Another ambitious target is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060.

Meanwhile, Neom Care – the gastronomy venture – will help develop Saudi youth through training, chef camps and educational projects to promote local sustainable gastronomy, on which a manifesto have even been written.

An award will be presented to Saudis participating in the programme, to celebrate "food professionals from around the world who share our passion and commitment to achieving food security through innovative and sustainable practices", Mr Niederkofler, co-founder of Neom Care, said at the launch.

At the heart of that, he said, was "identity based on creating healthy dishes from fresh, local and sustainable produce".

Mr Motamayor said Neom was preparing to work alongside the cream of the next generation. "We need to develop the right talent that will manage, work in or perhaps open and operate their own restaurants, to be able to attract tourists."

His company is teaming up with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and Tabuk University, as well as Tabuk Fish Company, in this effort.

"We will ultimately train them so that they can have their own Michelin stars in these restaurants that they will be working on," Mr Motamayor said

"We are making sure that it is not only about creating the infrastructure, but to be able to support the talent with very ambitious goals."

Neom is currently constructing two sets of high-tech greenhouses with a Dutch company, with one in Oxagon region close to the sea and the other one on the Tabuk University campus.

Updated: December 15, 2023, 3:10 AM