Heat and drought, the Middle East can help in food production

The Middle East's experience with heat and drought could be useful and beneficial around the world, said Ali Abusabaa, director general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) and CGIAR regional director for Central, Western and North Asia. from Africa.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the driest region in the world and is home to four of the five most water-scarce countries in the world.

However, its heritage as the cradle of agriculture also makes it an increasingly valuable source of global knowledge and innovation to adapt food systems to heat and drought, a challenge that more and more countries are facing.

Thanks to its "Fertile Crescent", a biodiversity-rich region in the Middle East, the region has seen more than 10.000 years of agricultural transformation and continues to be at the forefront of rainfed agriculture.

COP28 and the conversations about heat and drought

As temperatures rise and desertification spreads around the world, this year's COP28 climate talks in Dubai (November 30 to December 12) offer a great opportunity to learn in-depth about the region and its science that has developed a very particular agriculture in the desert.

The lack of fresh water in the Middle East and North Africa is made up for by ancient, hardy plants and animals and millennia of agricultural ingenuity. The area's notable agricultural heritage and harsh conditions mean it remains a treasure trove of "crop wild relatives": primitive food species that have evolved over millennia to withstand heat, water scarcity and poor soils.

For scientists looking for genetic traits in plants that can withstand the extreme climate conditions currently occurring in countries such as Australia, Canada, Spain and the United States, MENA is a place to incubate materials from which plants with better resistance can be created. and climate.

For example, the CGIAR recently released six new drought-tolerant varieties of barley and durum wheat, using material stored in a plant germplasm bank maintained by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Arid Regions (ICARDA) in Morocco.

Climate smart crops

CGIAR's climate-smart crops provide an important buffer against the impact of the drought, which caused wheat yields to fall by approximately 70% last year in Morocco, where conditions were so harsh that this drought was dubbed the "drought of the century".

Over the past 40 years, ICARDA has developed around 880 new crop varieties, generating annual profits of more than $850 million, far surpassing the Middle East and North Africa region. Over the past five years, more than 120 climate-resilient cereals and legumes have been grown in more than 20 countries. CGIAR's heat-tolerant wheat varieties, bred from wild relatives of the crop in the MENA region, increased yields by up to 24% when tested in Ethiopia, Lebanon, Morocco and Senegal.

In addition to growing more resilient crops, agricultural researchers in the region have also developed advanced early warning systems to help MENA and other water-scarce countries improve drought prediction and forecasting.

MENA scientists, in collaboration with the governments of Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco, have developed country-specific systems to predict the likelihood of heat and drought in the next one to three months. This allows farmers and local governments to manage water resources more effectively and make more informed growing decisions. A heat and drought index was introduced to show where tensions occur and boost relief efforts, and the project has expanded to Tunisia, attracting interest from other MENA countries.

heat and drought
Farmer tasting red cactus fruits, in Madaba, Jordan, 2019. Copyright: 
Sawsan Hassan/ICARDA , 
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED) .

Traditional knowledge and practices against heat and drought

The region also offers a compelling example of how traditional knowledge and practices can be used to improve food security, which can be accelerated through local and regional cooperation. For example, the Integrated Desert Agriculture Innovation Program was launched as part of the United States-UAE Agricultural Innovation Mission (AIM) Climate Initiative, which aims to grow and expand agricultural practices in the desert throughout the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.

Techniques to improve productivity and reverse desertification include innovation in water management, green energy integration, vertical farming, conservation agriculture, and deep learning through satellite observations.

A new technique is to use an ancient method called "Marab", which involves creating relatively flat areas of land to slow the flow of water after rain, allowing for better moisture retention and less degradation.

The use of this technology in Jordan has resulted in barley yields increasing from 0,34 to 8,37 tonnes per hectare and yields becoming more reliable due to less dependence on unpredictable rainfall.

Reseeding native grassland species, including grasses and legumes with reduced water needs, and controlled grazing have been shown to help restore grasslands.

As the world seeks to limit the rise in global temperatures, climate change is underway and its consequences are now inevitable in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. As many other countries face hotter, drier conditions, the MENA region provides a valuable case study to test the adaptability of agriculture.

Many of the innovations developed in the Middle East and North Africa will be important for the agriculture in the face of the climate crisis. Governments, policymakers and climate negotiators participating in COP28 must take into account the lessons from the MENA region to strengthen food security in a hotter, drier world.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in Arid Zones ( ICARDA ) researches and develops climate-smart agricultural innovations to generate resilient livelihoods for dryland farmers facing the pressing challenges of a climate crisis.

Ecoportal.net

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