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Director General’s Update

director general
Dr Mahmoud Solh shares his thoughts on agricultural research, development and policy. These reflections aim to stimulate debate on how to accelerate the development and adoption of new technologies and approaches.



How can we deliver the next Green Revolution?

Drylands research shows how we can increase food production on marginal lands without increasing the use of water, fertilizers and energy.


Last year I had the honor of meeting India’s President, Madame Pratibha Devi Singh Patil, when she visited our center to learn about solutions to drylands research that India could apply to support its food security strategy. India’s agricultural success is well known as a primary success story of the Green Revolution – driven by access to better seeds, fertilizer and irrigation.


In our discussions, the President remarked that the next green revolution for her country would likely come from increases in rain-fed agriculture – that can bring agricultural stability and food security to the many people living in dry areas marginal lands. This thinking reflects the challenge – and the big opportunity – that research in drylands agriculture can bring to increase food security for the most affected landscapes and populations.


In our work with partner governments across many of the world’s drylands areas we have developed new crop varieties and farming approaches that demonstrate that it is possible to maintain production systems in areas where there is no irrigation infrastructure, unpredictable rainfall and few external inputs such as fertilizer.      


Growing more food with less inputs


In our increasingly crowded and hungry world how can we deliver the next green revolution? How do we achieve a marked, step change without demanding increased resources of water, fertilizers, energy and land – all of which are in short supply?


In addition to the new crop varieties that are tolerant to problems such as salinity and cold snaps early in the growing season, drought or intense heat, a number of simple practices and approaches exist to better manage natural resources.


Harvesting new water resources


The combination of water harvesting and supplemental irrigation can bring water to communities where there is literally no water, or very little rainfall in the year. Water harvesting is usually perceived as a way to catch rainwater that falls in abundance in places like South Asia, and can be captured for later use.  


New methods for assessing the potential of water availability – close to villages and remote communities – have been developed and tested in Syria, Jordan and Libya. These bring governments the possibility to literally bring water to places that have never had it – thanks to a combination of satellite mapping of slopes soils and rainfall, and on-the-ground observations.  


Water harvesting, combined with supplemental irrigation, delivers water to crops at crucial periods in the growing cycle to boost yields, or to save crops from drought. It also allows smallholder farmers to plan planting instead of waiting for rain – which climate change has made increasingly erratic in some areas. In highlands areas, for example, farmers use supplemental irrigation to plant later, avoiding the risk of crop-killing frost.    


Conservation agriculture


Conservation agriculture aims to achieve sustainable and profitable farming to deliver improved rural livelihoods through the application of three principles: minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotations. In practice it combines low tillage, early planting, stubble retention and crop rotations. It reduces production costs, improves soil structure and water retention and reduces soil erosion. In the field zero tillage is the key to conservation cropping, and is becoming widely used in many countries.


Conservation agriculture is widely practiced in many of the world’s advanced agricultural economies. One of its greatest successes can be seen in Australia. Despite operating with a highly variable climate and fragile environment, Australian dryland farming systems have outperformed the agricultural sectors in most other countries over the past 30 years. Much of this productivity growth can be attributed to conservation agriculture.


Now, with the assistance of Australian donors AusAID/ACIAR, ICARDA has been working to transplant success down-under to the drylands of West Asia. In northern Syria, zero-tillage with early planting gave significantly higher yields than conventional tillage and late planting. For example in 2009-10, barley yields increased by 12%, from 3.35 tonnes to 3.74 tonnes per hectare. In wheat, net returns grew by US$ 250 per hectare –and that’s not counting the benefits of improved soil structure, erosion control and water conservation. The trials in Syria also showed that most currently available varieties are suitable for conservation cropping.


New, cheaper machines


Zero-tillage requires specialized planters that can place seeds accurately into unplowed soil. The currently available models are imported, and too expensive for most smallholder farmers. The Australian link-up allowed us to work with Iraqi and Syrian entrepreneurs to manufacture – locally and at low cost– planters suited to local conditions. These gave the same results as imported planters, at a fraction of the cost: US$1500-5000 versus US$ 50,000-60,000.


It’s been gratifying to see the growth in interest by farmers in the new system. In 2006-07, three farmers in Syria planted 15 hectares of crops using zero-tillage. In the 2010-11 season, 400 farmers planted 20,000 hectares. In Iraq, adoption has seen growth from 52 hectares to nearly 8000 hectares in the same period.


To encourage uptake, NGOs and government extension services provided zero-tillage seeders on loan, but every farmer provided inputs from his own resources. This is taken as a real vote of confidence and means they find the technology attractive and profitable.


Copyright and fair use: ICARDA encourages the reuse and republishing of this article provided proper credit is given. Food Security Comment, by Mahmoud Solh, Director General of ICARDA, International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. Sources: ICARDA’s research program.


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