Q&A: ‘Crop diversity is the key for marginal environments’

Ismahane Elouafi, director general of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). Copyright: ICBA

Speed read

  • Dubai to host Global Forum on Innovations for Marginal Environments
  • Marginal areas are vulnerable to climate change, water scarcity and salinity
  • Forum will showcase latest innovations and research to address these challenges

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

An estimated 1.7 billion people live in marginal environments – areas where the soil is poor and land has little or no agricultural value – according to the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). These are parts of the world that are highly vulnerable to climate change, water scarcity and salinity.

In an attempt to explore the scientific solutions available to address these challenges, the ICBA is hosting its inaugural Global Forum on Innovations for Marginal Environments (GFIME) in Dubai this month (20–21 November).

The event will bring together a global audience of 250 influential policymakers, decision-makers, and scientists to consider the enormous impact of soil and water salinisation and climate change on ecosystems, agricultural productivity, livelihoods and food security worldwide.

“Crop diversity is the key to tackling the upcoming challenges in marginal environments, especially considering the climate change impact, which is going to hit marginal environments hardest,”

Ismahane Elouafi, director general, International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA)

In an interview with SciDev.Net, ICBA director general Ismahane Elouafi explains how the forum aims to shape policies and projects and chart progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of eradicating poverty and hunger in these marginal lands.

What are the main objectives of the ICBA? 

Supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government and the Islamic Development Bank, ICBA is a unique applied agricultural research centre focused on marginal areas. It identifies, tests, and introduces resource-efficient, climate-smart crops and technologies that are best suited to different regions affected by salinity, water scarcity, and drought.
Through its work, ICBA helps to improve food security and livelihoods for some of the poorest rural communities around the world. Its strategic objectives are to promote sustainable management of natural resources; provide climate change solutions; enhance agricultural value chains, and advance sustainable food, feed, and biofuel agri-technologies.

Could you give us examples of grassroots projects and joint research implemented through ICBA?

Our scientists are working on a number of technologies, including the use of conventional and non-conventional water, such as saline, treated wastewater, industrial water, agricultural drainage, and seawater. They are also focusing on water and land management technologies and remote sensing and modeling for climate change adaptation.
Crop diversity is the key to tackling the upcoming challenges in marginal environments, especially considering the climate change impact, which is going to hit marginal environments hardest. The centre is working to identify and introduce new varieties of climate-resilient, salt-tolerant, and water-efficient crops that can survive in marginal environments, including quinoa, sorghum, and pearl millet.
Since 2006, ICBA has implemented a global research programme on quinoa, resulting in the identification of five high yielding quinoa lines. This programme is under way in the UAE, Morocco, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

The GFIME kicks off next week in Dubai. Could you tell us more about the relevance of this to the wider region?

ICBA is honoured to organise the first-ever Global Forum on Innovations for Marginal Environment, in collaboration with the food security office and the advanced sciences office of the UAE government, the Islamic Development Bank, the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi, and the Khalifa International Award for Date Palm and Agricultural Innovation. 
I'm very optimistic that through GFIME we will be able to identify some of the most innovative solutions to tackle growing challenges such as water scarcity, salinity, climate change, nutrition and hunger in the marginal environments of the region and the world. 
The forum will allow the development of valuable policies, partnerships, and projects while showcasing the latest progress made to address Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 1 and 2 on no poverty and zero hunger.

The event follows a series of projects, events, and research done by ICBA. What impact is this work having on agriculture in the region?

We aim to gather the top expertise on marginal environments from the whole world and ask: “Where are we now? What 'impactful solutions' are there for the complexity of cropping systems in marginal environments?”
Tackling marginal environments is a complex phenomenon and probably no single institution can address it. It requires synergies, alignments, and strong coalitions of multiple players.
ICBA has joined hands with both public and private organisations and national collaborators from a number of countries from Africa and Central Asia, to provide optimum solutions and improve the livelihoods of small-scale and marginal farmers. To go to large-scale, we need to do more and enlarge both our innovation platforms and our partnerships.

Who are you expecting to attend the conference and what do you hope to come from it?

GFIME will bring together a select global audience of 250 influential policymakers, decision-makers, scientists, and experts who are at the forefront of reshaping agriculture and food production for tomorrow.The forum will showcase the latest advances in research, innovation, development, and policy in agriculture and food production in marginal environments. It will explore investment and collaboration among government, science, and business leaders aimed at capitalising on underutilised crops and marginal land and water resources – [initiatives that will] harness new scientific findings and technologies to accelerate food security goals.
One of the key outcomes of this year’s GFIME will be a report titled “The State of Agriculture and Food Production in Marginal Environments: 2020”. The report will present up-to-date data and information on key challenges in marginal environments as well as insights on the latest trends in science, technology and development to address these. Most importantly, it will offer an overview of solutions from around the world and recommendations for tackling these challenges.