As populations grow and climate change takes hold, increased soil erosion and salinisation are putting humanity’s food security at risk especially in arid regions.
But research into crops that can grow in the harshest conditions and a mix of hi and low tech solutions are yielding promising results to this most urgent of priorities.
Last month, over 300 experts and decision-makers from about 70 countries gathered in Dubai at the Global Forum on Innovations for Marginal Environments (GFIME) to explore the latest advances in research, innovation, development and policy in agriculture and food production in the world’s marginal environments.
Dubbed as the Food Security and Innovation Day, the forum featured high-level panel discussions involving ministers, policymakers and innovators from around the world.
The UAE, with its harsh climate and adverse crop growing conditions that include low annual levels of rainfall, poor soil quality and shrinking groundwater levels, is well placed to take a lead in advancing technology-enabled agriculture, especially in the area of marginal environments.
"How do you enable the citizens of a country to have access to safe, sufficient, nutritious, affordable food?" asks Mariam Bint Mohammed Almheiri, UAE Minister for Food Security. "All the technologies that we're testing in our harsh environment are basically what we want to expose and help others with. We have the sun, the sea and the sand. And if we can grow food using the three S's, which are abundant here, we have a solution for the world."
Resilient super crops and other solutions
At the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai, (ICBA) scientists are researching the most resilient super crops and other solutions to help farmers in the harshest conditions increase their yield.
"We are an international not-for-profit organisation," explains Dr Ismahane Elouafi, Director General of the ICBA. "We provide technologies and solutions to the lowest income countries. We have to make the costs low enough so that it is affordable for smallholder farmers in lowest income countries."
One of these solutions mimics natural ecosystems at minimal cost.
"It’s a kind of farming system that combines agriculture and aquaculture," says Dr Dionysia Angeliki Lyra, a halophyte agronomist at the ICBA. "We're looking into how we can provide communities with nutrient dense systems that are climate resilient. We have the fish, which provides good protein; we have the vegetables, we have these highly salt tolerant plants that can have various uses."
Key to helping farmers in arid regions, is finding crops that can produce reliable yields in salty, hot and dry environments. Enter the genebank.
There are around 400,000 plant species on earth of which 30,000 are edible. In our current food system, we're only using 150 crops. The idea behind the genebank was to collect seeds and to screen them and see which ones could be used in food security. Initially, scientists were looking at desert climates, but now with global warming and climate change, more and more environments are changing to resemble the same conditions.
Quinoa - miracle crop
One crop really stands out.
Quinoa - the Mayas called it ‘the miracle crop’," explains Dr Ismahane Elouafi. "We have introduced it in easily about 10 countries ourselves. So from Yemen to Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and many other countries." Quinoa comes from Latin America and has very unique properties. It can withstand high levels of salinity and drought. It needs about half the water soaked up by wheat or barley. And it's very nutritious.
But it’s not just quinoa that’s yielding incredible results. Salicornia, or sea asparagus is like the holy grail of crops because it can be irrigated with sea water. "Salicornia is a fascinating plant. It can grow in desert environments," says Dr Dionysia Angeliki Lyra. "It can even be irrigated purely with seawater. There are some studies that are currently running on the biofuel potential of salicornia seeds."
It appears if we are to secure our food supply in a future transformed by climate change, it’s the biodiversity of nature that holds the key.