Millions of acres of land in Egypt are affected by the problems of desertification and degradation, even in the highly fertile areas such as the Nile Delta, with a knock-on effect on food security and on livelihoods.
The economic solution to cultivating Egyptian land where soil and water resources are highly salinized requires finding alternative crop production and management systems that are suitable for the available marginal resources.
Alternative, more climate-resilient and salt-tolerant crops have been successfully tested and introduced to many farming systems throughout the world, particularly in arid and coastal environments.
In the Arab world, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, located in the United Arab Emirates, has since 2003 initiatived a number of international projects to find ways to enhance agricultural productivity and improve the livelihood of farmers in salt-affected environments.
These projects were implemented in several Arab countries including Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Oman, Tunisia, Palestine, the UAE, Lebanon, and other non-MENA countries like Pakistan, Mauritania and Senegal.
As part of these projects more than 9,000 genotypes of 15 forage and field crops have been evaluated under stress conditions.
Partner countries were able to evaluate several hundred genotypes and selected the most productive, salt-tolerant and resilient genotypes of key crops such as barley, triticale, fodder beet, pearl millet, sorghum, safflower, quinoa and several non-conventional plants.
In Egypt, the ICBA has implemented projects with the Egyptian Desert Research Center (DRC) of the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation in Sinai and El-Wadi El-Gadid.
A unique project has been underway in Egypt recently to advance the value chain of the introduced resilient crops from the stage of introduction and evaluation to large-scale seed production of such crops.
Consequently, a commercial-scale seed processing and production unit was established in El-Wadi El-Gadid governorate to produce and treat saline-resistant seeds.
Dr. Abdullah Al-Dakheel, who is regional coordinator of the project with the International Center for Saline Agriculture in Dubai, says that the project started three years ago in 2015, and was preceded by three projects during the period from 2005 to 2015.
However, in the final phase of the project, Egypt was the only country selected for the scaling up and the expansion of seed production, to meet the demands of farmers in El-Wadi El-Gadid, Sinai and west of the Suez Canal.
In the last three years the project was successful in scaling up the seed production of resilient crops that have proven successful in enhancing the productivity of the farmers, such as a new crop, quinoa, that has a high nutritional value, salinity tolerance and economic return, in addition to resilient varieties of other crops like pearl millet, sorghum, triticale, barley and fava bean.
Ahram Online spoke to Dr. Al-Dakheel in more depth about the project.
Ahram Online: Can you speak more about the project’s implementation?
Dr. Abdullah Al-Dakheel: Over the past two and a half years, the number of farmers who participated in the project increased from 200 in the first year to 1,400 in 2017. The number of experimental fields reached 2,000 including both winter and summer agriculture.
Sixteen tons of seeds were produced and distributed to the participating farmers (4 tons for summer planting and 12 tons for winter planting). The programme not only focused on seed production but also on methods to improve the productivity of these new varieties through integrated field management packages, like the suitable agricultural practices, irrigation methods, planting density, suitable growing periods, fertilisation and others.
AO: But these agricultural areas lack an abundance of water and are low quality for agricultural use.
AD: From the beginning of the project we emphasised the use of water-saving irrigation methods such as drip irrigation, but since it is expensive for most farmers we implemented the gated pipe irrigation system that can save at least 30 percent of the water used.
The enhanced management packages led to more than a 30-40 percent increase in yield; however for the new crops like quinoa, triticale and pearl millet, the obtained yields were comparable with other environments, despite the short time since their introduction and lack of previous knowledge by farmers in the region.
The new crop species and varieties introduced are highly salt-resistant and highly productive, with multiple uses for human and animal feed; for example, quinoa is the key grain crop in South America.
Triticale is a hybrid grain crop between wheat and rye grass that looks like barley but has higher nutritional value.
Pearl millet and sorghum are the key grain crops for human consumption in India and sub-Saharan African countries.
AO: Why do you see the seed production and treatment unit as the project’s major achievements?
AD: The seed treatment and production unit is now in a situation that allows the development of the products and allows to operate it at economical level due to the development of the cultivated areas, as well as the availability of sufficient supply of the resilient seeds.
Thus, this unit is qualified to be developed into a regional integrated centre for the production of salt-tolerant crops in El-Wadi El-Gadid and to facilitate the use of the grains produced by the farmers to develop seed production programmes that can help all the farmers in the governorate and other governorates, and to ensure sustainable income for them.
For example, the new quinoa harvest reached more than a ton of seed produced; this was distributed to 200 farmers to cultivate areas of 20-25 feddans, that are expected to produce 20 tons of quinoa.
AO: Can you speak about your future ambitions for the unit?
AD: There is a vision for the future that we are working hard to achieve; we have done extensive communication and work in order to transform this unit into a unique centre for purification, processing and production of high quality seeds.
The efforts of all concerned parties, such as the Desert Research Center, the El-Wadi El-Gadid Governorate and the Ministry of Agriculture, are now focused on developing this unit to transform it into a centre.
The unit has a daily capacity of more than 10 tons, and the support of the partners will attract additional support from local and international authorities that will enable it to continue and develop.
AO: But did the human element in the region get enough attention from the project?
AD: The development of human capabilities and skills has been the most important focus of the project since its inception, not only the technical and productive aspect at the field level.
We have focused heavily on the human side and the development of capacities and skills related to the production and management of these crops and the full utilisation of their products whether seeds or animal feed.
In each year of project implementation, four training courses and workshops have been carried out in the region, in addition to extensive farmers’ field day events and farmers field schools.
The training included technical engineers in the region, agricultural extension engineers (more than 20 principal agricultural engineers), who have in turn trained their staff and conducted training at the village level. In each main workshop and training event, the number of farmers participating (male and female) ranged between 100-180.
AO: What is the share of women from these courses, as a key partner in development?
AD: Because women are essential partners and have an essential role in development and farm activities, the project placed a strong emphasis on the development of their skills and capacities in particular and on the rural family in general.
In addition to the annual training and workshops that were regularly held throughout the project with women’s participation, the project in 2017 implemented three workshops and specialised training courses specifically for women.
In March 2017, the technical staff of the Desert Research Center and the National Council for Women in El-Wadi El-Gadid participated in the training of 30 rural leaders, 20 agricultural engineers, in addition to 10 farmers who included heads of agricultural associations, to gain experience to train in their communities.
The training also included 100 farmers from 15 agricultural farmers associations, including women heads of agricultural associations.
The training workshops focused on familiarising the rural women with the project’s activities, field practices and participation, and how women can benefit from the project’s outcome and products.
An intensive training course was held in September 2017 specifically targeting the training of women rural leaders and female agricultural extension workers in methods and techniques for utilisation of crop products in animal and poultry feeding, household use of milk in the production of yoghurt and cheese, and other related activities.
The trainees will in turn train the families at the village level.
In November last year, a unique workshop and training course provided rural women with hands-on training and practical sessions on how they can make various meals and different kinds of food such as bread, pancakes, cakes, deserts using the new crops, mainly quinoa, as an alternative to rice and wheat. It also taught them how to complement them in traditional food meals, as well as the making of different types of sweets using the quinoa crop.
More than 140 women participated in the training and they achieved impressive results in quickly acquiring the skills and creating a wide range of meals, confirming the possibility of enhancing household food security in those areas.
Due to the importance of milk products in the family diet, the participants were also trained on how to manufacture dairy products in a healthy and nutritional way and using methods to add value to such products.
It also included training in the manufacture of animal feeds in a scientific manner that preserves the nutritional value of the ingredients and the ability to increase their storage and use in animal feeding for long periods of time.
Future training will not stop at this point, but the activities of the last workshop will continue with rural leaders, agricultural extension workers and specialised staff from the Desert Research Center to train women in ten agricultural communities in Al-Kharga villages so that farmers' families can benefit from training within their villages.
This training is aimed at 140 to 200 women. At the end of February 2018, a seminar will be held in Cairo for all potential stakeholders to present the results and outcomes of the project and the impact that has been achieved on enhancing the productivity of the farming communities in El-Wadi El-Gadid, and to outline the potential of the seed processing unit in serving the region in providing high quality seeds of climate resilient and alternative crops that can be extended to other similar regions in Egypt.