Climate change poses a significant threat to dryland agriculture – and millions of farmers are already challenged by rising temperatures, water scarcity, and the emergence of new pests and diseases. While this situation is certainly bad, it is by no means hopeless. With more targeted research and investment, there are good prospects for reducing risk and even improving agricultural outputs.
Tailored to on-the-ground realities – sustainable intensification in high-potential lands and enhanced resilience in marginal lands – practical approaches have the potential to significantly improve the prospects of farmers and rural communities.
New innovations and technologies
Harnessing new technologies and innovations – tested and verified by agricultural research initiatives - will help farmers produce ‘more with less’. They include:
Improved crop varieties and livestock breeds: advances in crop breeding can produce varieties that are able to resist temperature extremes, drought, and disease. Science can also be harnessed to breed hardy, more resilience livestock breeds that are capable of adapting to the harsh conditions that characterize dryland regions, particularly marginal areas.
An ICARDA initiative working across 10 Arab Countries – ‘Enhancing Food Security in Arab Countries’ – has developed high-yielding, resilient wheat varieties, which generate, on average, yields that are 28 per cent higher than conventional varieties.
An initiative to improve the genetic stock of livestock is also raising animal productivity and profitability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Alongside other interventions – including improved animal nutrition, feed and fodder production, and preventive veterinary care – sheep and goat herders have experienced 80-200 percent increases in meat and milk production, benefits worth over 650,000 USD, and a 71 percent rate of return on investments.
persification: persifying production can help mitigate the risks of climate change while increasing farmer incomes. Value-added products such as yogurt or cheese, for example, can open new income streams for livestock farmers, and rehabilitating rangelands with shrubs and cacti can also provide important sources of fodder. Integrated crop-livestock production systems can also be an effective way of cushioning each sector from external pressures and getting maximum effects from a symbiosis of both.
Conservation Agriculture: this practice – which involves not plowing farmlands and leaving crop residue in the field for improved soil fertility and water conservation - is a proven means of stabilizing crop production, reversing land degradation, and raising farmer incomes. Its application in Iraq – part of an ICARDA-led initiative funded by the Australian Government - has been highly beneficial: farmers experienced yields of up to 160 kilograms per hectare, which generated an additional 100 USD per hectare. The area now devoted to conservation agriculture in Iraq exceeds 15,000 hectares – up from 0 in 2007.
Improved water management: water is the common denominator for problems affecting farmers in dryland countries. Depletion and mismanagement of groundwater reserves is being exacerbated by the effects of climate change – which is causing less rainfall and more erratic distribution. Options to improve water management in poorer countries include: efforts to increase irrigation efficiency; crop rotation; adapting crop varieties so they use less water; and water harvesting – a low-cost approach that attempts to conserve every last drop of available moisture. Often benefiting from the traditional knowledge of rural communities, water harvesting can also be enhanced through the application of satellite remote sensing.
As part of its efforts to improve the efficiency of irrigation systems, the ICARDA-led ‘Enhancing Food Security in Arab Countries’ initiative is promoting the use of ‘drip’ irrigation – a form of irrigation that allows water to drip slowly to the roots of crops. In Tunisia, for instance, its introduction has generated Water Use Efficiency (WUE) rates – the amount of crop produced per m3 of water – that far exceed conventional sprinkler systems. In 2013/14, drip irrigation systems generated impressive yields of 6.57 tons per hectare (t/ha).