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Fighting desertification

Fighting desertification

Hichem Ben Salem, Director of ICARDA's Diversification and Sustainable Intensification of Production Systems Program.

ICARDA researchers have to grapple with the issue of desertification every day. This challenge, already big, is becoming even more significant as a growing global population places increasing pressure on productive land.

If we have any chance of delivering more nutritious food to people in the Global South we need to recover degraded land, enhancing the health and fertility of our soils so we can raise productivity and enhance food and feed production.

In the dry areas, where ICARDA works, this challenge is likely to be more difficult – these marginal environments are on the frontline in the fight against desertification and are predicted to be worst affected by climate change.

In fact, rising temperatures and increasing water scarcity and salinization are already a major constraint to agricultural production, threatening to consign many rural communities to chronic poverty and food insecurity.

In response, ICARDA has adopted an integrated approach to soil health, combining proven agronomic practices, the sustainable management of natural resources, and the introduction of water-efficient plant species. Reducing yield gaps is also one of the main targets of our institution.

Today, on World Day to Combat Desertification, it is worth reflecting on this experience. At a time when the United Nations estimates that some 805 million people – a staggering one in eight people worldwide - lack access to sufficient nutritious food we need practical strategies that dryland countries can adopt to protect their most productive land.

A cornerstone of ICARDA’s efforts is Conservation Agriculture – the practice of not plowing farmlands and leaving crop residue in the field for improved soil fertility and water conservation – which balances yields, resource conservation, and increased efficiency for smallholder farmers.

Although this practice is a common feature of production systems in developed countries like Australia and the United States, its limited adoption across the dry areas of the developing world represents a missed opportunity and a failure on the part of decision makers.

ICARDA is therefore working hard to promote conservation agriculture and demonstrate its efficacy to smallholder farmers. Our efforts in Iraqalongside the Australian Government, for instance, have seen the practice extend across 15,000 hectares – up from 0 hectares in 2007. Iraqi decision makers bought into our plans and have witnessed extremely positive results: participating farmers have seen an average yield increase of 160 kilograms per hectare (kg/ha), and additional income of 100 USD/ha.

Following this success, ICARDA and the ICARDA-led CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systemsare now targeting the practice’s expansion across North Africa and Central Asia. In Central Asia alone, conservation agriculture has been applied to more than two million hectares.

ICARDA is also removing one of the biggest constraints to the spread of conservation agriculture – the lack of affordable seeders. We are working with local producers to develop cost-effective prototypes - worth between 2 and 6000 USD – and adapting these to local conditions.

In addition, ICARDA efforts are addressing one of the key contributors to degradation and desertification in marginal areas – over-grazing and the unsustainable management of pastoral land and resources.

Alongside national partners we are developing ‘pastoral codes’ – and the adoption of participatory approaches to management that involve communities in the process of establishing rules and regulations regarding access to communal lands.

Pastoral codes include grazing restrictions during a certain period to allow vegetation to regenerate, for instance, or the requirement that pastoralists pay for grazing rights, which while controversial and a potential source of resentment and opposition, offers a number of advantages – helping to moderate the impulse to over-exploit resources, or contribute to a source of funding that can be re-invested into rehabilitation programs.

ICARDA rehabilitation efforts prioritize sustainable fodder species – indigenous plants and cactus. Cactus, a water-efficient plant capable of thriving in harsh arid environments has multiple uses – not only to be used as fodder and provide a guaranteed supply of nutrients and water in even the driest conditions, but also to lend itself to food processing or cosmetics.

The promotion of drought-tolerant shrub species such as Retama, Buffel grass and Fire Bush also offer an opportunity to assist rangeland rehabilitation efforts, helping to conserve rapidly-depleting water resources and maintain grazing at sustainable levels.

These interventions will help farmers combat desertification and adapt to increasingly hot and water-scarce conditions. On World Day to Combat Desertification we must renew our commitment to healthy soils and productive land. Failure to do so risks food insecurity on an unprecedented scale.