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Bridging the gap between food consumption and production in Arab countries


The Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) recently launched its 2014 Report - Arab Environment 7 - Food Security: Challenges and Prospects - at the Forum’s Annual Conference in Amman, Jordan, under the Patronage of HRH King Abdullah the Second.


The Conference brought together researchers, development organizations, and policymakers to plan strategies capable of enhancing food security and strengthening regional cooperation – helping to bridge yield gaps in Arab countries and reverse the region’s rising dependence on food imports. These problems will be exacerbated by the effects of climate change - predictions suggest that countries in North Africa and West Asia will be among the worst affected by climate change in decades to come, with even higher temperatures and increasing water scarcity and drought.


In a wide-ranging presentation delivered to the Conference, ICARDA’s Director General, Dr. Mahmoud Solh, argued that it was possible to bridge the gap between consumption and agricultural production in the Arab World – but only with the effective application of science and technology, a crucial consideration if countries are to successfully raise production and improve water efficiency and productivity.


Since the Arab World has barely three million hectares to expand agricultural production, sustainable intensification using proven scientific innovation holds the key to raising production against a backdrop of increasing natural resource degradation.


“There is no silver bullet to improving the food security situation,” acknowledged Dr. Solh. “However, our research tells us that science and technology can close the yield gap – the gap between actual and potential yields - and reverse the region’s low agricultural productivity and growing dependence on food imports.”


In the area of water management, more efforts are needed to modernize irrigation regimes, for example, increasing water-use efficiency through the introduction of technologies such as supplemental irrigation. Rainfed areas also require improved water harvesting techniques.


Crop improvement is a further priority: developing and distributing high-yielding crop varieties capable of tolerating drought, disease, and other bio-physical constraints. Dr. Solh referred to ICARDA successes in Sudan where researchers have successfully bred irrigated, heat-tolerant wheat – varieties that are now being distributed to other countries and have recently demonstrated significant yield potential in the dry, parched lands of northern Nigeria.


However, these interventions cannot be introduced in isolation. Efforts to strengthen the Arab region’s food security require an integrated and holistic approach that combines crop improvement alongside sustainable land and water management, efficient irrigation, and the application of appropriate fertilizers and other inputs. Illustrating this holistic approach to agricultural research for development, Dr. Solh pointed to ICARDA’s promotion of raised-bed planting in Egypt which has reduced water application by 30 percent and increased yields by 25 percent.


A fully integrated approach also requires policy support. Science cannot lead a much needed agricultural revolution in the Arab World if governments are not willing to create an enabling environment or commit to financial investments in agricultural research. “Agriculture needs to be a national priority if food security is to become a reality – both here in the Arab World, and globally,” argued Dr. Solh. “Government commitment will help sustain scientific innovations, and ultimately, ensure that new technologies reach the end-user – smallholder farmers.”


This argument reflected previous discussions on the role of government, including a speech from HRH Prince El-Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, an advocate for sustainable development in the region, who argued that government and scientific institutions had to work together, ensuring that the development, validation, and dissemination of scientific innovations are reflected in national policies.


The Annual Conference of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) was held in Amman, Jordan, from November 26-27. A report released to coincide with the conference – Food Security: Challenges and Prospects – can be downloaded at:


Dr. Mahmoud Solh: There is no silver bullet to improving the food security situation, but closing the yield gap is possible.




Strengthening climate change adaptation


A new tool developed by ICARDA and its partners,  The Climate Change and Drought Atlas,  promises to help farmers and rural communities in Jordan and Iraq adapt to the increasing impacts of climate change – including widespread water scarcity and increasing levels of drought. The tool was launched as part of an IFAD-funded project targeting improved community awareness about the effects of climate change that facilitates access to new technologies capable of supporting their adaptation.


The project aims to improve awareness of climate change at the policy and community levels; deliver technologies to resource-poor communities; and encourage farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural practices.


Barley-based livestock production systems largely depend upon agricultural production and animal-keeping activities, and sustain some of the poorest segments of the rural population in North Africa and West Asia. Barley farmers are already experiencing problems as a result of climate variability and the increasing incidence of drought. In recent years farmers in both Iraq and Jordan have experienced significant losses during prolonged dry spells.


Areas harvested with barley in Jordan and Iraq suffered significant declines in 2008-9. In the coming decades, climatologists predict more frequent climatic extremes: Longer droughts, more intense storms, and extreme low temperatures that will damage or destroy crops unable to adapt.


The Climate Change and Drought Atlas, launched by HE Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akef Zu’bi, during the initiative’s final workshop, measures the impact climate change on rain-fed and arid lands – providing the information that both Jordan and Iraq  need to develop adaptation strategies over the coming years.


The Atlas, which links technologies and practices to a solid foundation of climate change assessment in a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) framework, strongly predicts that the region will experience precipitation declines and higher temperatures, and therefore higher crop-water demands, shorter growing periods, and shifts in climatic zones.


The workshop demonstrated the potential technologies needed to raise production and help producers adapt to the negative implications of climate change in dry and very dry areas. Attending the workshop, ICARDA’s Director General, Dr. Mahmoud Solh, outlined some of the interventions required over the coming years: Improved, drought-tolerant barley varieties; innovative farming practices such as conservation agriculture and modified seeding rates; participatory plant breeding schemes; and improved feed and livestock management. 


Dr. Mahmoud Solh (left) presenting the Climate Change and Drought Atlas to Jordan’s Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akef Zu’bi.




Transforming lives in Afghanistan


Sustained efforts to improve the health of dairy goats in Afghanistan are helping to transform the lives of rural communities - against a back-drop of conflict and the worsening impacts of climate change. Over the past three decades, Afghanistan’s agricultural land has become increasingly degraded and declining reserves of water and fodder have threatened the sustainability of livestock production. The spread of disease have also endangered this essential source of community income, with approximately 80 percent of goats aborted in some areas due to poor health and nutrition, and limited access to animal health services, including vaccinations and de-worming.


An ICARDA initiative, supported by the Afghan government’s Rural Microfinance and Livestock Support Program (RMLSP), is working with 14 villages to conduct livestock management training and provide essential health services. The results have been a decreased incidence of disease and significantly fewer abortions. Communities have further benefited from improved techniques of dairy hygiene and processing, promising higher quality products and more income.


The Project’s success has been ensured through well-trained and well-equipped vets who are attached to the area of implementation and responsible for identifying and purchasing quality vaccines and medicines. These individuals are supported through a recently-established Veterinary Field Unit (VFU). There is also a gender component: female facilitators in each village have played a key role in the provision of animal health services, informing farmers about vaccination campaigns.


Speaking recently about the positive impacts in his own community, farmer Mr. Abdul Ahmad Khan, indicated the changes that had occurred since the Project’s inception: “The outbreaks and spread of disease, and a lack of awareness among the people here, was one of the main causes, of morbidity, mortality, and abortions in our goats before the project started. We were not aware previously about the importance of animal vaccines.”


Funding for the initiative is provided by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) through Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture.


Afghanistan’s agricultural land has become increasingly degraded and declining reserves of water and fodder have threatened the sustainability of livestock production.




Presenting scientific solutions for drylands agriculture


ICARDA’s scientific innovations were recently shared with a high level gathering of Heads of State, government officials, and global entrepreneurs in Marrakech, Morocco. This year’s 5th Global Entrepreneurship Summit, focused on harnessing technology for innovation and entrepreneurship, outlined strategies for ensuring that science and technology become drivers of a more inclusive economic growth model, providing opportunities for Africa’s growing population – particularly the continent’s youth.


ICARDA’s research demonstrates that proven science and technology, introduced in an integrated way, can be the linchpin of a sustained effort to transform drylands agriculture, and ensure that countries in the dry areas are capable of producing enough food for their populations – whether these are ‘smart,’ water-efficient irrigation systems, improved crop varieties capable of tolerating drought or disease, or sustainable farming practices such as conservation agriculture.


The Center was represented by Dr. Mohammad El Mourid, senior ICARDA scientist, who presented some of ICARDA’s recent achievements: germplasm research, water management, seed systems, and the promotion and extension of conservation agriculture. Dr. El Mourid also discussed the Center’s efforts to help build African research capacity and strengthen its relationships with the Continent’s research institutions and agricultural universities.


Dr. Mohammad El Mourid (far right) presented some of ICARDA’s recent achievements in the area of agricultural research for development.




Improving Pakistan’s management of scarce water resources


In an effort to strengthen Pakistan’s water productivity and irrigation schemes, an ICARDA-managed initiative is pushing ahead with the promotion and dissemination of technologies at 40 demonstration sites spread across the country. Funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the project is promoting innovative water management techniques, alternate irrigation systems, and other cost-effective water conservation measures.


Among the technologies being promoted are rainwater harvesting on roofs, micro-catchments and ponds, and soil erosion control through the use of low-cost, loose-stone structures. A dissemination strategy has also been put in place: more than 67,000 brochures on different technologies have been printed in English, Urdu, and local languages; nine documentaries related to the technologies have been developed; and farmer field days have reached an estimated 8500 farmers. 


Aside from farmers, there have also been efforts to build the capacity of Pakistan’s human resources: close to 50 on-the-job trainings targeted over 1800 professionals from the country’s extension services, covering on-farm water management and soil conservation. Ten four-day trainings were organized for Agriculture Service Providers (ASPs) where over 150 ASPs were trained on the use of bed planters, laser levelers, and the installation of drip, sprinkler and rooftop rainwater harvesting systems. In total, more than 6000 professionals, policy makers, farmers, and students visited demonstration sites.


The impact of this promotion has been impressive: more than 1300 micro-catchments have been developed; government has adopted the model of solar pumping linked with high-efficiency irrigation systems; and more than 100 rooftop rainwater harvesting systems have been constructed. These successes were shared at the initiative’s recent annual review and planning meeting, attended by USDA Project Leader, Dr. Otto Gonzalez, and Dr. Abdul Majid, ICARDA’s Pakistan Country Manager.


Efforts to improve water management in Pakistan were presented to USDA at the Project’s recent review and planning meeting.