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Coping with climate change: what will it take for MENA’s smallholders


Panel discussion with opening remarks from ICARDA's Board Chair, Margret Thalwitz

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the livelihoods of smallholders and food security are hung by a thin thread. The region has 87 percent of the land area as desert. On arable lands, the food productivity is impeded by severe water stress, soil degradation, and outdated farming technologies and practices. MENA relies for 50 percent of its food requirements on imports – the highest dependence in the world.

Climate change will aggravate the food dependence on imports as MENA becomes hotter and drier.

With a rapidly growing population to feed, can MENA produce more food to reduce its increasing reliance on imports?

Is MENA prepared to address the threat of climate change to its food and nutritional security?

These were the big questions posed by MENA country representatives at one of the COP22 events in Marrakesh, past week. The event, titled “Coping with Climate Change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region: Meeting Future Food Demand through Science & Innovation”, held on November 16, sought to examine these challenges with a panel of science and policy experts, in the light of impacts from climate change.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), heightened and more frequent occurrences of climatic events are inevitable. With very low soil organic matter, these extreme conditions will further deteriorate food systems and yields in MENA region. Since arable land is scarce, the only path to increasing the production is “vertical expansion” or intensification and bridging the yield gaps – a strategy that hinges on science and innovation. 

Preparing for Climate Change Future

A business-as-usual approach could tip the balance for rural livelihoods in MENA. Investing in a climate change action plan on the contrary presents an immense opportunity for countries in the region to turn around their food security, as per a scenario analysis by IFPRI.

The analysis exploring alternate climate and investment futures estimates maximum increase in crop yields in MENA region under changing climate as compared to Central Asia region and developing countries (about 25% more gain) if a comprehensive investment in agriculture (over a period of 2015-2050) is put in place.  The “comprehensive investment” entails greater investment in research and development, water use efficiency, expanded irrigation systems, and infrastructure to support agriculture and value chain development.

In addition to investments, policy reform would be the key driver to gain traction and unlock the potential gains.   

“Subsidies that distort production decisions and encourage water use beyond economically appropriate levels would need to be reduced”, said Mark Rosegrant, environment and policy expert from IFPRI.

Regulatory reforms removing hurdles to release of new improved cultivars and technologies, and open trading that allows for sharing of climate risks are some complementary steps that countries can incorporate in their climate change action plan.

According to ICARDA’s director general, Aly Abousabaa, “building resilience goes beyond the capability to deal with physical aspects of climate change. Economic resilience, i.e., diversification of livelihoods will make farmers less vulnerable to shocks from climate change, as is pursued by ICARDA.”

ICARDA’s research approach in MENA includes integrating crop-livestock systems, introducing pulses crops into cereal-based cropping systems, and innovating agri-based value chains of dairy, meat, yarn, and processed wheat and barley products. To implement these strategies, the center has been developing improved crops, land and water management technologies, more productive livestock, genebank resources, and socio-economic analytical tools to inform research and implementation for viable outcomes.

Are We there Yet with Science & Technology?

Rising temperatures and increasing water scarcity will be major culprits for food production. “In ICARDA’s experience, several technology options have been developed over year years of research in drylands that respond to these challenges,” said Abousabaa, highlighting a few examples.

In Sudan, where temperatures can reach 45°C or higher, new heat-tolerant wheat varieties are promising increased food security under climate change. These varieties, adapted to Nigeria, have encouraged Nigerian policy-makers to cover 300,000 hectares by 2017 to cut down its dependence on expensive food imports.

In example of Egypt, Orobanche-resistant faba bean varieties have revived faba bean production. Faba bean production was on decline because of infestation from the foliar disease spurred by climate change.

“These improvements are using the crop genetic resources of ancient landraces and wild relatives saved in ICARDA’s Genebank that gives us a powerful weapon to fight climate change,” mentioned Abousabaa.

Addressing the challenge of water scarcity, raised-bed planting of wheat, developed in research partnership with Egypt, provides a solution that produces more crop per drop. The practice saves 25% irrigation water while producing 30% more crop. “Further, the innovation of raised-bed planting machine has created local markets and new jobs for manufacturing and maintenance,” added Abousabaa.

In marginal lands where the potential is inherently limited by scanty water availability, systems approach of barley-livestock production linked to dairy and meat value chains has proven beneficial, such as in Jordan.  

Conservation agriculture or the practice of zero till was yet another strategy that was highlighted for climate change adaptation. Research work with private sector, partners and farmers in Syria, Jordan, Central Asia, Morocco and Iraq has led to the innovation of locally manufactured zero till machines at a fraction of the cost of imported machines, opening the path to greater adoption by farmers. Zero till practice reduces production costs and increases yields over time by promoting moisture and nutrient retention in soils.

“Technologies have come a long way. But along with improved technologies, soft services such as information systems and crop insurance will be important to plan for failures,” cautioned Abousabaa.

In reviewing the state of science and technology, the panel agreed the shortcoming lies in the poor adoption of technologies, which should be the main area of attention for countries and donors.

Rachid Mrabet from INRA-Morocco, sharing Morocco’s experience, emphasized the important role of policy in scaling out adoption of improved technologies to achieve a transformative change. “Technologies with immediate benefit may be more easily adopted. But in certain cases, such as that of conservation agriculture, farmers will be able to see the benefits only over a period of three to four years. Policies and mechanisms that incentivize can play a crucial role in encouraging farmers to adopt them”, said Mrabet.

The panelists concluded diversification or implementing a mix of solutions as the bottom line to building climate-resilience for smallholders in MENA.

Key Takeaways from COP22

  • A host of innovations and technologies are available to MENA and other dryland countries that can make a substantial difference, from improving smallholders’ livelihoods to rehabilitating degraded lands, and building national self-sufficiency.
  • Enabling policies are needed to help bridge the “death valley” between science and implementation, so there can be wide-scale impact.
  • Diversifying livelihoods are a must to build resilience of resource poor in drylands, to see them through in times of extreme events.
  • Adaptation of African Agriculture to Climate Change Initiative can be instrumental in action at country level to increase adoption of improved technologies and practices.   (  

Key Contributors: 

Rachid Mrabet, Research Director, INRA-Morocco and Member of COP22 Scientific Committee

Mr. Aly Abousabaa, Director General, ICARDA

Mark Rosegrant, Director of IFPRI’s Environment and Technology Division

Dr. Riad Balaghi, INRA-Morocco

The event “Coping with Climate Change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region: Meeting Future Food Demand through Science & Innovation” was co-organized by ICARDA and INRA-Morocco on November 16 as part of COP22 in Marrakesh. 

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