It is possible to bridge the gap between consumption and agricultural production in the Arab World – but only with the effective application of science and technology to boost yields and improve water-use efficiency. This was one of the key points made in a wide-ranging presentation delivered by Dr. Mahmoud Solh, ICARDA’s Director General, at a forum convened to discuss the deteriorating food security situation now threatening the Arab World and its growing population.
The Annual Conference of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), held in Amman, Jordan, brought together researchers, development organizations, and policymakers to plan strategies capable of reversing a status quo of low yields and rising food import dependence – problems that 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, with even higher temperatures and increasing water scarcity and drought over the coming decades.
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: http://www.afedonline.org/Report2014/English.html