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Egyptian farmers pin high hopes on biosaline agriculture

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

 “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to George Washington in 1787. 300 years later, Jefferson’s words seem more relevant than ever.

Despite water scarcity in many of the Middle Eastern countries, agriculture remains an important contributor to their economies. Today, many of the region’s countries are considered to be highly dependent on agriculture.

Egypt is one of them. Being the birthplace of one of the world’s oldest agricultural civilizations, Egypt still relies heavily on agriculture to this day. It is estimated that agriculture contributes approximately 14 percent to GDP and employs 31 percent of the workforce in Egypt. In addition to the economy, agriculture plays a significant role in Egypt’s food security, employment, and ecological balance.

Yet it seems like agriculture is losing its momentum as an economic pillar of the country. For the past years, Egypt has continued to be a large importer of food.

Experts believe that a deluge of challenges and threats is hindering the growth of the agricultural sector in Egypt. These challenges include lack of efficient agricultural and rural development policies, as well as degradation of natural resources.

Moreover, the agricultural sector in Egypt is highly dependent on private farms. These farms are predominantly based in the rural parts of the country, where poverty and lack of quality education prevail. This results in the use of outdated agricultural techniques and practices.

The agricultural situation in Egypt is further exacerbated by a rapidly increasing population, rendering the sustainability of agriculture in Egypt an even more pressing issue.

Despite having the lowest per capita arable land base in Africa, Egypt’s arable lands remain strikingly productive. Most of Egypt’s arable lands are cultivated at least twice a year. However, this remarkable productivity is challenged by soil salinity in many parts of the country.

Affecting around 35 percent of Egypt’s cultivated lands, soil salinity is perhaps one of the most persistent obstacles in the way of agricultural development. The problem is made even worse by climate change.

Climate change in the Mediterranean region brings about changes in the precipitation patterns and increases in the average temperatures. These conditions help intensify salt build-up in soil.    

In 2010, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) joined forces with local agricultural authorities, represented by the Desert Research Center and the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, in an ambitious effort to introduce a new approach to sustainably adapt to the impacts of climate change.

This collaboration gave rise to a series of joint efforts to address the issues of soil salinity, and climate change impacts. Two major projects were completed as part of the collaboration.

Titled “Adaptation to climate change in marginal environments in West Asia and North Africa (WANA)”, the first project ran from February 2010 to June 2015 in Egypt, as well as Jordan, Oman, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. The project had a number of challenging objectives, namely improving resilience to climate change, enhancing land productivity, improving the standard of living of poor farmers relying on marginal water and land resources in the WANA region, and disseminating high-yielding forage and food crop production packages.

“Nearly 8,000 accessions of more than 20 forage species were screened and evaluated to identify genotypes with better stress tolerance and productivity under marginal conditions, and high-value crop species like safflower and quinoa were introduced to the farming systems in several countries with successful adaptation and demand by local farmers,” Dr. Khalil Ammar, a principal scientist in hydrology/hydrogeology at ICBA, says.

One of the project’s achievements was reforming the agricultural drainage systems in the project’s targeted areas, as well as providing an abundance of livestock feed to local farmers. The farmers were also trained in preserving this feed as silage - a fermented, high-moisture stored fodder, which comes in handy at times when livestock feed becomes scarce.

Other accomplishments included training farmers in maximizing the use of dry agricultural waste, establishing a center for dairy production and inspection, and increasing the involvement of women in the local communities.

As a follow-up to the first one, the second project was specifically designed for Egypt. Named “Model for seed production of resilient salt-tolerant crop species for climate-smart agriculture in Egypt”, the project spanned for three years. The project targeted the previously uncultivable lands of Suez, Beni Suef, and Al-Wadi Al-Jadid. Together, these three regions make up about 50 percent of Egypt's total area of land.

For years, water scarcity, high soil salinity, and poor soil management practices have rendered many of these lands barren.

The project, which began in March 2015, aimed at substantially improving farmers’ standards of living through the introduction, adaptation and scaling-up of climate-resilient crops and local seed production at the community level.

The project also aimed at building the capacity and improving the technical skills of agricultural engineers, as well as achieving social and economic empowerment of rural women in Egypt.

Starting with 200 farmers in its first year, the project managed to reach 1,400 farmers by its completion, covering around 2,000 experimental fields.

It also succeeded in establishing a seed purification unit in Al-Wadi Al-Jadid Governorate, with a capacity of 10 tonnes per day. Furthermore, the project produced 25 tonnes of salt-tolerant seeds. An agricultural machinery unit was also installed in Al-Wadi Al-Jadid.

The project distributed around 12 tonnes of winter crop seeds. These winter crops included wheat, barley, quinoa and triticale, which is a hybrid of wheat and rye. As for summer crops, the project distributed around 4 tonnes of millet and sorghum seeds.

One of the project’s main achievements was advancing the irrigation systems in the targeted areas, as well as distributing 25 tonnes of compost to enhance soil properties.

A total of nine field workshops and training programs were conducted as part of the project’s goal to raise the farmers’ awareness of the best practices in using saline and treated wastewater on their farms, in addition to fostering adaptability to climate change in poor communities living in marginal areas.

 “Our farms were highly saline, and therefore did not produce any crops. But this changed after the research team provided us with the resilient salt-tolerant seeds. They also started to train us in proper practices and techniques,” Abdulrady, a local farmer from Suez, says.

“The project introduced quinoa to Suez for the first time, and we were astonished by its very good yields,” he continues.

 “The research team analyzed our soils, then provided us with quinoa, barley, and wheat seeds. They then conducted several training events. The seeds produced high yields, which was unprecedented on our farms,” Nady, another local farmer in Suez, adds.

“The research team also helped us tremendously with the marketing of our quinoa produce; as it was a new crop, we had little knowledge about how it can be marketed,” he explains.

“This project has changed my life drastically. For a farmer like me, adopting these approaches has been profitable,” Nady notes.

The projects had covered a little over 3,780 ha in Egypt.

Since the completion of the projects, ICBA has started several new initiatives. These initiatives focus on using sea-based agriculture in the Red Sea coastal region, and testing and introducing even more salt-tolerant crops to the areas where such crops are most needed.