DUBAI: For all their futuristic skylines, multi-lane highways and lushly landscaped public parks, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other GCC countries cannot overcome a fundamental geographical disadvantage: They all have marginal agricultural conditions.
Marginal environments are areas of the world characterized by high temperatures, poor soil quality and low annual rainfall, and regarded as most vulnerable to water scarcity, salinity and climate change.
Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, marginal environments are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to producing food due to soil-fertility decline, salinization of soil and water resources, population growth, and climate change.
The good news is that geography is not destiny. GCC countries are pioneering and leveraging agricultural technology to overcome the handicap of their desert ecosystem and increase their domestic supplies of food.
With the increasing incorporation of technology in agriculture, the hope is that marginal environments will one day be able to produce high food yields with minimal resources.
As Mariam Almheiri, the UAE minister of state for food security, noted while addressing the Global Forum on Innovations for Marginal Environments held recently in Dubai, “Today, 1.7 billion people live in marginal environments, including 70 percent of the world’s poorest, and it is increasing.”
The conference, which brought together 250 decision-makers, scientists and experts in agriculture and food production, heard that many of the already extreme harsh conditions faced by marginal environments may become worse in the near future due to prolonged droughts and extreme temperatures linked to climate change.
“Many of these regions will experience large population growth,” Almheiri said. “But solutions to addressing this are now on the horizon. Breakthroughs in technology and bioscience in marginal environments now mean these areas can offer promise.”
According to Ayman Sejiny, general manager and CEO of the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) in Saudi Arabia, poverty and food insecurity are endemic in the bank’s member states on account of socioeconomic, institutional, environmental and technical hindrances to their agricultural development.
“About a third of the 850 million food-insecure people globally are in IsDB member countries,” Sejiny said, adding that the IsDB “invested significantly in agriculture and rural development in the past — and will continue to do so.”
Since its inception in 1975, IsDB has funded about 1,000 agriculture and rural development projects, worth a combined $12bn and accounting for about 12 percent of its total investments.
“But $1.4 trillion still needs to be invested, and we recognize that the public sector will not be able to find this money on its own. So we have invested in the value chain to support food security,” Sejiny explained. “People are getting educated about what’s really needed.”
IsDB plans to launch ambitious programs to help develop national, regional and global value chains, Sejiny said, adding that global population growth calls for transformative action that can increase productivity and link farmers to sustainable markets.
“Our member countries — which include Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Pakistan and Morocco — have enormous potential for feeding the world and influencing global agricultural value chains,” he said.
“Together, these 57 countries account for 29 percent of the world’s total agricultural areas and up to 15 percent of the world’s food production, including cereals, horticulture, livestock, fishery and forestry resources.”
The IsDB’s objectives include boosting self-sufficiency by 10 percent, increasing crop yield to five tons per hectare, and improving the livelihood of more than two million farmers and their families.
“If we want to confront climate change and feed the growing world population, we must invest in science, technology and innovation (STI). Greater deployment of STI in agricultural programs for food security would require increased private-sector engagement and stronger public institutional support.”
The International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai is a leader in conducting applied research to improve agricultural productivity and sustainability in marginal and saline environments.
With an estimated 2,000 hectares of farm soil lost globally every day to salt-induced degradation, the urgency of research, innovation and development in agriculture and food production in marginal environments cannot be overemphasized.
“Increasing droughts pose a serious threat to food production in marginal environments,” said Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, director general of the ICBA. “Farmers feel it much more because they are dependent on that water. What we have today as arable land will most probably change over time. Four billion people are water-scarce and this (number) will grow.”
Noting that just three crops — wheat, maize (corn) and rice — provide nearly 60 percent of total plant calories that humans consume, Elouafi said: “Globally, nine plant species account for 66 percent of total crop production. But the planet is full of plant species, of which 30,000 are edible and 6,000 are cultivated for food.”
The way forward, in her view, is a diversification of agricultural production systems.
Elouafi said that, considering that two billion children are malnourished today and 88 percent of countries face two or three forms of serious malnutrition, a diet transition is vital for the planet and for the human race.
“It is happening, but we see it much more in the north, where people are consuming quinoa and kale,” she said, adding that production of such crops needs to be scaled up and introduced in the south, “where they are needed the most.”
“We are trying to do that, by talking about other crops which are very nutritious, such as millet, quinoa and barley.”
The problems outlined by Elouafi do not, of course, comprise the entirety of the global food challenge. According to Dr. Nina Fedoroff, emeritus professor of biology at Penn State University, smarter agriculture technologies will be needed going forward as food demand is expected to double by 2050 to keep pace with population growth.
“Farm machinery increasingly does everything from planting to harvesting,” she said. “But we can only go so far with technology and we can’t grow our rain crops under glass. We need biology — and genetics — for marginal environments.”
She said that the introduction of insect-resistant crops and gene technology will be key to achieving sustainability in food production.
“We don’t have the luxury of millennia to come up with the crops of the future, so we need the modern tools of genetic modification,” Fedoroff said.
“Genetically modified crops have been adopted by farmers faster than any in the history of humanity — roughly 18 million farmers in 26 countries. We don’t have the luxury of time because of climate change.”
Gene editing will play a crucial role, Fedoroff said, despite people’s fears and inadequate research.
“We need all of the techniques of genetics, from domestication to plant breeding to the most modern genetic-modification techniques,” she said. “Countries must address the politics of modern molecular genetics, including public acceptance and developing an appropriate regulatory framework, which is not an easy task.”
Fedoroff said none of this can happen without seriously boosting investment in modernizing agricultural research facilities, adding: “There are extraordinary opportunities for this in Africa and the Middle East.”
In this regard, the ICBA is doing its bit by expanding its work with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad), besides the IsDB, said Elouafi.
“More areas around the world will turn marginal due to climate change and other factors,” she said. “Resources are the most vulnerable to climate change, so we have to protect them, address the challenges facing people in marginal environments, and diversify crops. But we can only do that through partnership. We need to plan and act together.
“We can’t do it with one hand, we all have to clap together and work together.”