Towards a ‘Food Secure’ future

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Ismahane Elouafi, the Director General, ICBA (International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture) gives us a fascinating insight in to their global work benefiting tens of thousands of small-scale farmers by addressing food insecurity and malnutrition.  With some 821 million people undernourished in the world today she is worried about the impacts of climate change yet she is also optimistic that science and innovation can help address the future challenges.

Can you explain the key activities of the ICBA?  

ICBA is an international not-for-profit applied agricultural research center. Our center has a unique focus on marginal environments that have a mix of environmental and socioeconomic constraints, including soil and water salinity, water scarcity and natural resource degradation.

Our programs and activities incorporate knowledge and technology transfer; individual and institutional capacity development; and policy support.

Our main stakeholders are smallholder farmers and rural communities who face a wide range of risks to their livelihoods from water shortage to salinization to soil degradation.

So, our scientists identify, test and introduce resource-efficient, climate-smart crops and technologies that are best suited to different agroecosystems and can help smallholder farmers and rural communities produce enough food to eat and sell in the face of threats such as climate change.

We also implement capacity-building programs targeting different stakeholders, which are necessary for the adoption of solutions we promote.

Policy support cuts across many of our initiatives. Our evidence-based recommendations inform policymaking in various countries.

What is food security and how and what is ICBA doing in terms of creating solutions to make this a reality in the world?

There are many definitions of food security, but they all include such dimensions as availability, access, utilization and stability. All four must be present simultaneously to achieve food security.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it has been one of the most elusive targets in international development. Despite some early progress to fight hunger, we know it has been on the rise worldwide since 2014 and some 821 million people are undernourished today. What is more, around 2 billion people lack key micronutrients such as iron and vitamin A.

To address food insecurity and malnutrition, we promote alternative climate-resilient crops like quinoa, sorghum, pearl millet and Salicornia and technologies to grow them in unfavorable environmental conditions.

Quinoa, for example, stands out for its adaptability and nutritional profile. We have run a global program since 2007 to introduce improved genotypes in Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa and establish value chains.

ICBA has implemented projects in 30 countries since 1999, could you maybe share with us some success stories and people you have worked with?

Over the years, our center’s research-for-development programs and activities have benefitted tens of thousands of small-scale farmers directly and indirectly.

But our center has also done a great deal to support policymakers in many countries. Our research and analysis have informed such policies and strategies as the UAE Water Conservation Strategy, the UAE Agricultural Strategy, the Kuwait Food Security Strategy and the Oman Salinity Strategy.

One of the highlights is our long-term research collaboration with the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) on precise estimates of date palm water consumption using SAP flow. As a result of this collaboration, we have water productivity data that helps to significantly reduce date palm irrigation requirements, which can contribute to sustainable agricultural water management in the country.

What are the potential crops that could be grown here in the UAE and what would need to be in place in order for this to be realized?

Not much can grow in the UAE due to harsh environmental conditions. So farming is quite resource-intensive. However, the UAE can benefit from growing crops such as millet, quinoa and barley during winter and some selected vegetables between November and April in the open field, whereas most of the other food crops need to be cultivated using a controlled environment approach.

These plants can withstand local conditions and our research shows that it is possible to grow them for food, feed and biofuel. For instance, quinoa and Salicornia have shown great potential as open-field crops for food and feed. We are working with different local partners to grow and make them into value-added products.

We have also done extensive research on forage crops suitable for highly saline conditions. And results are very promising. Halophytic, or salt-loving, perennial forage grass species such as Distichlis spicata, Paspalum vaginatum, Sporobolus virginicus and S. arabicus can be excellent alternatives for sustainable forage production in salt-affected areas of the country.

Often water usage is the main issue and concern when it comes to agriculture, what ways can be used to overcome the impact on the environment and reduce water consumption?

Irrigation for agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of the world’s water withdrawals. Unfortunately, much of this water is used inefficiently due to various reasons like overirrigation and poor infrastructure, among others. Yet some 4 billion people face water shortages at least one month a year. And around half a billion do not have enough water all year round.

This problem is more pronounced in water-stressed regions like the Middle East and North Africa. To make up for the freshwater deficit, many countries depend on desalination, which leads to another problem: reject brine. Some 142 million cubic meters of reject brine are discharged every day, mostly back into the environment.

So our research focuses on increasing water efficiency and productivity in agriculture but also tapping into the potential of non-freshwater resources like treated wastewater, saline groundwater, reject brine and seawater. Our experiments show that treated wastewater could be a good alternative to freshwater resources. We have also operated inland and coastal modular farms to grow vegetables, fish, and halophytic plants using reject brine and seawater. Our scientists have also tested several irrigation technologies that help to save 20-50% of irrigation water compared with traditional technologies like surface and sub-surface drip irrigation, sprinklers, and bubblers.

What do you foresee the future will look like in terms of growing food, where it will be grown and what will we be eating?

Today our world faces a climate crisis. If we do not act to prevent the worst, the consequences might be catastrophic for every sector, and especially agriculture. So, we have to make our food systems more resilient to the effects of climate change. We must make the most of every resource for food production. Our dietary habits must also change.

More of our food might be produced in cities as vertical farming and other technologies become more efficient and widespread.

Our diets might also change and include more of plant-based and insect-based sources of protein. This is particularly important if we want to reduce agriculture’s pressure on the environment.

At the same time, smallholder farmers will likely remain the main food producers in the developing world.

Quinoa fields

Quinoa fields

Due to mass farming and genetically modified food, food diversity is restricted and many strains of particular vegetables for example are becoming lost, what are your thoughts on this and how do you think we can protect small farmers and agricultural diversity?

Alas, our food systems are too dependent on a few staples. As a result, our diets are not adequately rich. Just 15 crops provide 90 percent of our food energy intake, of which two-thirds come from wheat, maize and rice. We are narrowing down our plant and genetic bases. We have reduced the genetic diversity in our diets over the years, and as a result, the global market has only 150 plant species out of some 7,000 which have been cultivated throughout human history. Furthermore, we are also reducing the genetic diversity within species themselves. For example, our wheat varieties all come from only a handful of wild genotypes.

This needs to change as it is neither good for our health nor is sustainable for our planet. We need to recreate diversity in our diets within the current 150 species and also bring back at least another 1,000 species into food production systems and most importantly our diets.

To help smallholder farmers and rural communities, especially in low-income countries, we must diversify into these underutilized crops and equip them with skills and tools to grow them.

We also need to support indigenous peoples and use their knowledge in building more resilient food systems.

Poverty is a political problem, not just an economic one or an environmental one, feeding those faced with such challenges is crucial, can you tell me about any projects you are working on that address this?

Indeed, poverty is a major global problem. As part of our mandate, we work to tackle the twin challenges of poverty and hunger. This is reflected in our strategy which is aligned with seven Sustainable Development Goals. So, all of our programs and activities are geared in one way or another towards improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and rural communities.

Just one of our most recent success stories is in Morocco. One of our projects there has been helping farmers, especially rural women, to produce and market quinoa-based products. As a result, several associations such as the 3ème millénaire (3rd millennium) cooperative, which is collectively managed by over 30 rural women and girls, have managed to increase their profits by producing and selling value-added products from quinoa. The number of smallholders who cultivate quinoa is also on the rise as demand for quinoa-based foods is increasing.

The world throws away more food than it produces, one could argue we don’t need to find ways to make more food, we need to focus more on mitigating waste, what do you think?

Almost one-third of food we produce is either lost or wasted worldwide every year. One study by the Boston Consulting Group estimates that it is 1.6 billion tonnes of food worth about 1.2 trillion USD. And it is quite unsettling as hundreds of millions of people go hungry globally. There are different causes, but it is important to reduce food loss and waste across the food supply chain as there are serious socioeconomic and environmental costs associated with it. And we also can do our bit in this regard by changing our food consumption behaviors.

However, I disagree with the argument as I think we need both to reduce food loss and waste and improve our production systems and develop new more diversified and resilient food systems. We are going to be 9.7 billion in 2050.

What is the impact of climate change on food production?

There is no doubt climate change will negatively affect agriculture and food production. There is a growing body of research which forecasts substantial yield reductions under a changing climate. In fact, we are already witnessing this trend in many parts of the world. So, we must diversify and thus climate-proof our food systems as staples that we grow today are not fit for the future climate.

One of the major impacts of climate change is that plant evapotranspiration will increase as Earth heats up. Basically, we will need more water to produce the same amount of food while our water resources are dwindling.

What excites you about the future and what worries you?

Indeed, the future is both worrying and exciting. On the one hand, we really face an existential threat in the form of a climate catastrophe if we continue business as usual. So, like most of the people, I am concerned about what will happen in the future. On the other hand, I am optimistic that science and innovation can help us address the future challenges. The 4th industrial revolution is exciting as it ushers in great disruptive technologies. I’m expecting a great deal of new technologies that will transform completely our food systems.

At the same time, I hope that we will also turn to nature and look for solutions to our challenges there. We must not forget that Earth is our only home and we all must look after it together.

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Dr. Ismahane Elouafi is Director General of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai.

She is internationally known as a strong advocate of alternative approaches to ensuring food security and nutrition in marginal environments, including use of neglected and underutilized crops and non-fresh water resources in agriculture. Ranked among the 20 most influential women in science in the Islamic world, she has initiated and promoted a number of programs and efforts to empower women in science in the Arab world and beyond.

Dr. Elouafi has nearly two decades of experience in agricultural research and development in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. She is a recipient of several prestigious awards and accolades, including the National Reward Medal by His Majesty Mohamed VI, the King of Morocco (2014), and the Excellence in Science Award from the Global Thinkers Forum (2014).

She has been leading ICBA since 2012 and has overseen the development of the center’s long-term strategy focusing on marginal environments.


*** Update: In September 2020, Dr. Ismahane Elouafi became the first-ever Chief Scientist in the history of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This is a major recognition of her achievements as a scientist and thought leader. Congratulations! ***