In the face of climate change and population growth, among many other global challenges, the world looks set for an unsustainable future. Today food insecurity and water scarcity are a grave reality for hundreds of millions of people, mainly in developing countries. According to forecasts by UN agencies, food security risks will only grow, especially for those who already suffer the most. This is particularly true of regions like the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. The cost of inaction is too high. Concerned about potential future global food shortages and more frequent natural disasters caused by climate change, the international community set itself in 2015 a list of universal goals until 2030, known as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to tackle varying global threats. These goals serve now as a road map for international, regional and national efforts to deal with, among other things, climate change, food insecurity and other related problems.
Like many international research and development organizations, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) aligned its work with the SDGs that fall under its mandate after the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 had been adopted. In fact, ICBA has been for nearly two decades at the forefront of research and development efforts in parts of the world that already face wide-ranging risks to food and water security.
Established in 1999 in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), ICBA is one of a very few organizations uniquely focused on addressing agricultural and environmental problems facing regions affected by, among others, salinity, drought and water scarcity. The center works to improve agricultural productivity and promote sustainable farming to cope with food security challenges confronting some of the most vulnerable countries. It does so through introducing innovative, resource-efficient and climate-smart technologies and crops in areas where other technologies and crops are not effective. But above all, the center focuses huge efforts on research and development and capacity development of different stakeholders, especially young people.
R&D for food and water security
ICBA’s strong belief in research and development is reflected in its programs and strategies implemented in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, the Caucasus and Sub-Saharan Africa. The center’s mandate has significantly expanded to cover marginal environments since Dr. Ismahane Elouafi took the helm as ICBA’s director general in 2012. Under its Strategy 2013-2023, ICBA has now a specific focus on natural resources management, climate change impacts and management, crop diversification and genetic improvement, aquaculture and bioenergy, and policies for resilience in marginal environments.
Over the years, the center has worked extensively on alternative and non-traditional solutions adapted to different marginal conditions. ICBA has, for example, run since 2007 a major initiative to introduce quinoa to farmers in different regions. To date the center has implemented quinoa-related activities in several countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. ICBA’s four quinoa varieties are well suited to arid and saline conditions and produce around 5 tonnes of seed per hectare. In Morocco, ICBA has partnered with local researchers to study quinoa cultivation in southern areas where agricultural production is hindered by salinity. Researchers have shown that it is possible to obtain around 4 tonnes of quinoa per hectare at a water salinity level of 12 dS/m.
Scientists at ICBA also study how to use treated wastewater, saline water and seawater for agriculture and landscaping. Treated wastewater has been proven suitable for irrigation of several vegetables in the Middle East. This research is particularly important for water-scarce countries where agriculture is an economic mainstay but freshwater reserves are declining.
Capacity development of younger generation
Capacity development cuts across all ICBA’s research and development initiatives. The center focuses considerable resources on disseminating knowledge and developing the capacities of different stakeholders, particularly women farmers, scientists and the younger generation.
For example, ICBA began a major initiative in 2016 to empower young women scientists in the Arab world. In partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Islamic Development Bank, the center designed and piloted the new fellowship program, known as Tamkeen, to help young Arab women scientists better realize their leadership and research potential.
As part of this work, the center organized a seminal training course together with the African Women in Agriculture Research and Development program for several women researchers from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman and Palestine.
Through Tamkeen, young Arab women scientists will be able to complete one-year fellowships and improve their research and leadership skills. Once launched, the program will attract research fellows from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Tunisia and the UAE.
ICBA also offers opportunities to students and graduates from around the world to gain practical experience. Over the past years, the center has provided internships to large numbers of students from countries like China, India, Morocco, the UAE, USA and others. Every year ICBA selects up to 10 students through its internship program, which offers interns an opportunity to work together with world-renowned scientists and practice in experimental fields and state-of-the-art laboratories. Interns conduct studies and projects on a wide range of subjects, including water and land management, crop diversification and genetics, and climate change modeling and adaptation. They also get a chance to publish their scientific papers as conducting field and laboratory research is one of the prerequisites for publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals and completing theses.
In 2017, for example, several female students from France, Morocco, Serbia and the UAE were on placement at ICBA to carry out projects on quinoa and greenhouse. Karelle Bassole, a master’s student at ISTOM, College of International Agro-development, France, studied the improvement of quinoa germination and seedling. And Imane El Majidi, a student from Morocco, received support and guidance from ICBA scientists on her social project involving quinoa to empower women in the region of Marrakesh. Jasmina Kostić, a master’s student at the University of Belgrade, Serbia, did a project on water and energy use efficiency of vegetables, while Hamda Al-Masoum, a bachelor’s student at Zayed University, the UAE, conducted a comparative analysis of crop production under greenhouse and net-house conditions.
This experience helps to increase the chances of students and graduates to find employment and make positive contributions in their countries. And ICBA is committed to continuing to empower young people to become successful scientists, entrepreneurs and leaders.
Through its research and capacity-building programs, ICBA ultimately aims to increase agricultural productivity, ensure long-term environmental sustainability and improve income opportunities for vulnerable communities in different parts of the world.