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Cop28 funds pave the way for Mena agricultural innovation

Cop28 agriculture UAE Reuters/Rula Rouhana
Workers on a newly launched wheat farm in Sharjah in the Northern Emirates
  • Agricultural innovation a priority
  • Mena region is 84% desert
  • Desert farming trial in Egypt

In 2022 Morocco suffered its worst drought in 40 years. It had a devastating impact on agricultural productivity – the country’s cereal production plunged by 60 percent and 280,000 jobs were lost.

Thousands of miles to the east, motorists on the main road from the UAE to Oman see dead and dying palm trees on what used to be cultivated land, now depleted because of soil salinity. 

The Middle East and North Africa is 84 percent desert and home to 11 of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the world. Soils in various parts of the Mena region are close to collapse after centuries of irrigation.

Little surprise that agriculture and agricultural innovation have been priorities for the UAE as it hosted Cop28.

During the UN climate conference, the Emirates announced plans for a Dubai “giga-farm” capable of replacing 1 percent of the country’s food imports and growing 2 billion plants each year.

It also revealed that investment in the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, a joint project with the US, had doubled in one year to $17 billion, and that it had signed a $200 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to invest in innovative farming. These will include testing different vegetable seeds to assess performance under desert conditions.

In addition, it secured endorsement for the Cop28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action from more than 130 leaders and is joining the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Backing the targets

Vinay Nangia, research team leader at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (Icarda), says Egypt brought agriculture and water into the mainstream of climate negotiations for the first time at Cop27.

“What Cop28 has done is put its money where its mouth is. They have actually backed all those aspirations, all those ambitious targets with funding,” Nangia tells AGBI.

Nangia says the Consultative Group has secured more than $890 million in funding pledges at Cop28 – some of which Icarda hopes will be allocated to its $100 million Integrated Desert Farming Innovation Programme

The programme aims to accelerate agricultural innovation through improved water management, climate-smart crops, integrated crop and livestock systems, and efforts to reduce desertification. 

Icarda estimates that the initiative could lead to an 85 percent cut in fresh water use and a 90 percent reduction in energy consumption over five years, including the conversion of 100,000 greenhouses to solar power.

It is running a proof-of-concept scheme in Egypt, for which the country’s government has provided $500,000, according to its regional coordinator Abdoul Aziz Niane.

Desert farmingShutterstock/ChameleonsEye
Land scarcity calls for innovative approaches to make desert farming a success and aid food security

The scheme started in November and will continue until around May. If successful, it will roll it out across the Arabian Peninsula, Niane says. 

The desert farming programme has already successfully tested replacing polycarbonate covers with insect proof nets and evaporative cooling with solar energy powered ultra-low-pressure drippers.

Water and energy consumption was reduced by a 85 percent and 90 percent respectively. Production was also extended to early August with no adverse impact on yields. 

Other techniques pioneered by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and Icarda include ultra-low-energy drip irrigation systems, which deliver water and fertiliser to crops in a slow, targeted manner, and have been shown to reduce salinity.

Experiments conducted in Mena countries found that ultra-low-energy drips reduce energy needs by 40-70 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 64 percent.

“Market forces and physical changes in the climate and availability of water will compel the decision makers and the farmers to change what they grow, how they grow it and what environment they grow it in,” says Nangia.

“They will have to embrace change, as it’s going to be imposed upon them.”

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