Sde Boqer, Israel --- The archeological remains of Avdat seem like a strange place to study farming.

The site -- a camel caravan stop built by the Nabateans over 2,000 years ago in the Negev Desert -- sits in the middle of a vast, dry desert. Hard brown loess lightly sprinkled with stunted shrubs and bleak weeds stretches for miles.

The only substantial greenery is clustered at a farm irrigated by desalinated water piped miles away from the coast and a roadside McDonald’s. It looks like Arizona on a bad day.

But Hendrik Bruins, a professor of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research and the Swiss Institute for Dryland Environmental Research, implores observers to take a closer look. Some of those scraggly shrubs grow in straight lines. Notice the random, low wall peeking out of the crust.

Soon, it becomes apparent. This isn’t pristine desert. The bush geometry in the region is a remnant of an extensive terraced agricultural system. Growing grapes or wheat in the region requires a minimum of 300 millimeters of water and Avdat only gets 85 millimeters of rain a year. The terraced walls stood 300 millimeters tall, just enough to support the local ancient wineries.  

Could the system, or some element of it, be revived?

“This started as experimental archeology, but it has become practical,” Bruins said.

Learning how to live in a parched environment could become the next export for Israel. Approximately 45 percent of the people in the world live in dry lands, defined as regions that get 600 millimeters or less of rain a year, according to Alon Tal, a professor at Ben-Gurion University, which oversees the Blaustein Institutes.  

Deserts, moreover, are on the march. About 15 percent of the world’s lands have been degraded in recent decades though salinity, overexploitation, rapid population growth and soil loss.

“Desertification has been left behind because it is perceived as an African issue, but there is not a challenge that is easier to overcome than desertification,” Tal said. “You aren’t going to plant the same crop in a hyper-arid zone as an arid zone. You can’t plant the same kind of trees [in regions that get] 270 millimeters of rain.”

Climate change further exacerbates the problem. For example, Sde Boqer, a small Negev town where the three Blaustein Institutes are based, usually gets around 40 to 90 millimeters of rain a year. In 2010, only 30 millimeters fell and nearly everyone can tell you the dates (January 15 and December 24) off the top of their heads.

The research spans the gamut of dry: hydroponics, plant breeding, demographics, solar technology. Evyatar Erell, for instance, has a number of projects underway on desert architecture and urban planning. (The urban heat island, he informs me, was actually first identified in England in the early 1800s.)

David Faiman, meanwhile, oversees the National Solar Energy Center, another part of the umbrella. Some of the intellectual property behind concentrator companies like ZenithSolar has come out of here. The Center also lets private companies like HelioFocus test prototypes.  

Is desert research an economic opportunity or a tool for diplomacy? Both, actually. Researcher Yair Kaufman at the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research (one of the organizations inside Blaustein) is developing a desalination membrane powered by aquaporins, a protein in human and animal cells that purifies water.

Ideally, aquaporin desalination could cut the amount of energy required for desalination by 50 percent and the ultimate cost by one-third. A Danish company, appropriately called Aquaporin, is racing toward the same goal.

Meanwhile, Professor Zeev Weisman and a team of researchers want to optimize olive strains for food production and fuel. Approximately 5 percent to 7 percent of the total olive mass, however, can be converted to biodiesel. The olive stone can also serve as a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol. In other words, two fuels (and food)  from one plant. He’s also working to optimize pomegranates for medicinal use. Either crop could become a money spinner for farmers.

Another idea that could go commercial: a solar thermal hot water heater that helps ensure that warm water will be available early in the morning by manipulating liquid flows and pressure in a novel manner. Professor Dan Blumberg likens it to virtualization for solar hot water.

At the same time, projects and initiatives seem calculated to win friends, too. A few grad students hail from Jordan and Ghana. A prototype system for inland desalination -- which relies on brackish swamps rather than seawater -- will go live this year in Jordan.

“As [water] stressed as Israel is, Jordan is even more stressed. In Amman, not everyone has water,” said Jack Gilron, the CTO at Rotec, the company commercializing tapered flow, and a professor at the Zuckerberg Institute.

Jordan may also become the locale of a large-scale desal plant that will dump its brine into the Dead Sea via a link billed as the Peace Conduit. Others are examining how to preserve gerbils and other native animal species. Others, meanwhile, are making an argument for water conservation: reliance on desalination could lead to a need for nuclear power in a region already known for fractured politics.  

Bruins, who also serves as a consultant to the United Nations and other organizations as a food security specialist, adds that this work -- or failure to continue this work -- will have global consequences. Droughts and desertification lead to humanitarian crises, which can turn into border conflicts and refugee migrations.

The margin for error, moreover, has become thin.  Back in the '70s, banks convinced agribusiness conglomerates to cut costs by eliminating silos and storage facilities. Biofuels consume a small portion of harvested crops, but have a disproportionate impact on pricing due to razor-thin supplies.

“Because of that, for the first time ever, there are no food stocks. In a good year, there is barely enough,” he said. If China were to experience a major crop failure, all of the food exports in the world couldn’t make up the difference.

“Soil is very precious,” he said. “You should stop thinking about it as dirt.”