Cultivation of "Giza 179" of drought-resistant rice.Credit: Dr.Bassiouni A. Zayed

Climate-smart agriculture: Inevitable practices to adapt to climate change

The United Nations Climate Conference discusses the challenges of transitioning to climate-smart agriculture and the need to raise awareness among farmers to expand the range of solutions that give them resilience in the face of climate change.
The United Nations Climate Conference discusses the challenges of transitioning to climate-smart agriculture and the need to raise awareness among farmers to expand the range of solutions that give them resilience in the face of climate change.

In the village of “Burj Nour Al Hummus,” Daqahlia Governorate, occupying the northeastern part of the Nile Delta in Egypt, this year Ibrahim Al-Suhaiti planted four acres of his land with drought-resistant rice seeds. Al-Suhaiti was overwhelmed with gratitude after harvesting more crops in a shorter time compared to the previously required production process.

Al-Suhaiti, who lives in a village following Aga Town, learned about climate change-resistant rice seeds- or what he called fertilisers- through The Field Crops Research Institute at the State Agricultural Research Center. These seeds provided him with several advantages; firstly, shortening the agricultural cycle to between 120 and 125 days, compared to the traditional crop time that took from 150 to 160 days. They also saved a third of the amount of water used, as well as requiring less labour.

 Ibrahim summarises his experience with these seeds saying, “the farmer now plants dry seeds in a dry soil effortlessly, then irrigates the land and finishes the job in only about two hours a day!”.

In 2015, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched the SAIL project, with the participation of the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture, to help Egyptian smallholder farmers promote what is known as climate-smart practises, with a total funding of 94.6 million USD. The project, extending until 2023 encourages farmers to try soil-less hydroponics – an innovative technology to reduce water and increase productivity – and use alternative crop varieties, convert traditional irrigation systems to drip or sprinkler irrigation, and use solar-powered harvesting equipment.

Climate-Smart Agriculture

The FAO defines climate-smart agriculture as an approach to prepare procedures necessary to transform agricultural systems to food security support in the light of climate change, seeking to achieve three main goals: increasing productivity sustainably, adapting to climate change and holding out against it, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to farming practices.

The World Bank considers the climate-smart agriculture approach as an integrated approach to the management of natural lands including agricultural land, livestock, forests, and fisheries related to food security and climate change. Hence, 52% of the World Bank’s agriculture funding targets practises seeking to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

A case study conducted by the FAO in 2021, in a number of countries on climate-smart agriculture, has shown that the natural agricultural resources in Egypt are under constant threat; due to climate change and increasing human pressures, as sea level rise will reduce the cultivated area around the Nile. Temperatures are expected to increase, and consequently the increase in the gap between available water resources and actual needs. Expectations have shown a significant decrease in wheat production in the period between 2012 and 2040 at a rate ranging from 11% to 12%, and from 26% to 47% in rice, and from 40% to 47% in corn production.

Drip irrigation experience. Credit: Dr.Bassiouni A. Zayed

Rice Production Improvement Initiative

Bassiouni Zayed, Head of Research in the Rice Research Department at the Field Crops Research Institute, says that developing new crops aims at obtaining “climate-smart” varieties which withstand negative environmental changes that affect crop productivity, such as high temperatures, soil dryness and salinity, and lack of water which often forces us to irrigate crops using wastewater and treated water despite containing high salinity levels.

Zayed heads the research team in the “Improving Rice Productivity Under Climate Change and Salinity Conditions” initiative, funded by the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research and Technology.

Zayed, along with his colleagues, conducted researches to develop new varieties capable of withstanding the three climate conditions, then began to cultivate them in some fields in areas suffering from the effects of climate changes in the governorates of Kafr El-Sheikh and Port Said and others. They also applied, in parallel to save water, new methods of cultivation called “Cultivation on lines or terraces”, achieving good results.

In their pursuit for conducting more tests, the researchers resorted to some areas in the city of Farafra, Al-Wadi Al-Jadeed, to evaluate the new varieties in light of the combination of the three effects resulting from climate change in this soil which are: high temperature, drought, salinity and irrigation at intervals. They also experimented with cultivating rice using drip irrigation.

The initial results were promising; an acre produced between 2 to 2.9 tons of rice, and consumed only 1,800 to 2,000 cubic metres of water, which Zayed considered a great achievement, given that rice is always cultivated using flood irrigation, and therefore requires large quantities of water, the thing that prompted them to continue their experiments.

So far, the initiative produced several varieties that are characterised by their ability to adapt to climate changes, but the most tolerant of them are “Giza 179”, “Sakha Super 300”, and “Sulala 9399”.

We are also working on producing agricultural varieties which require less nitrogen fertilisers, which in turn cause the production of nitrous oxide, one of the greenhouse gases. We also used one of the organic compounds extracted from the Moringa plant as a fertiliser to reduce the harmful effects of chemicals achieving good results”, added Zayed to “Al-Elm”.

Whereas farmers are concerned with the occurrence of change in the cultivated crops and the traditional methods to which they are accustomed, continuing to think – at the same time – about the possibilities of additional cost or loss, the centre works on introducing them to the new varieties through planting them using “demonstration farms” and comparing the productivity of old varieties with new ones. The centre also conducts introductory seminars on harvest days, inviting farmers and agricultural extension agents to evaluate the quality of the crop and its advantages, in addition to using agricultural media channels to promote this trend.

For its part, the centre encourages them to use new varieties for they will save time, money and labour, and guarantee the farmers high productivity, explaining how smart practices contribute in mitigating the contribution of the agricultural sector to climate change, as they will reduce methane emissions from rice fields, and the cultivation of high-yield varieties has a higher capacity for photosynthesis absorbing more carbon dioxide.

Agriculture Sector and Greenhouse Emissions

In Egypt, the agriculture sector occupies the second place in terms of greenhouse gases emissions with 14.9%, whereas the energy sector occupies the first place with 64.5%, followed by the industrial processes sector and then the waste sector, according to Egypt’s report to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in 2018, which is the most recent statistic so far.

Globally, between 2007 and 2016, agriculture and land use contributed by 23% in producing carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous gases, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

Agriculture in Egypt produces this percentage of emissions through “enteric fermentation” processes, animal manure treatment, flooded rice cultivation, agricultural soil management, and burning agricultural residues in fields.

The issue of “Climate-Smart Agriculture” was the focus of this year’s United Nations Climate Conference, as one of its sessions on November 2nd discussed “food security and the transition to innovative food production”.

Benjamin Franklin, Cocoa Farmer and Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of Fair-Trade Africa, a non-profit organisation supporting farmers, and one of the conference sessions’ participants, said that there are challenges facing the transition to climate-smart agriculture in Africa. First, there is a need to raise awareness between farmers so they should learn the risks associated with climate change, adding to “Al-Elm” that it is important to ensure that farmers receive fair wages and enjoy good living standards, the agricultural market is not fair in bearing the costs of the climate crisis. Franklin calls for climate funding to target expanding the solutions scale which helps farmers learn resilience in facing climate change.

According to the organisation, only 2% of climate funding goes to smallholding farmers in low-income countries, yet 80% of the world’s food comes from 500 million family farms, thus the foundation’s demands are not just to switch to smart agriculture, but to take broad climate and environmental measures to achieve economic and social justice for farmers, so they can get their fair share of policymakers’ promises to invest the 100 billion USD annual commitments previously set at the Paris Conference.

SCALA Project

In parallel with the SAIL project, Egypt – represented by the Ministry of Agriculture- signed a few months ago an agreement for the “SCALA” project with FAO and several partners, targeting the impact of climate change on agricultural crops, in an attempt to generalise some climate-smart practises in 12 countries, including Egypt.

Fatima Al-Zahraa Abdullah, climate adaptation expert at FAO and a member of the project, says, “the goal here is to support Egypt in translating agricultural needs into the national adaptation plan to climate changes, so the project will help disseminate climate-smart methods and train the private sector to switch from old agricultural methods to contribute along with the public sector in climate adaptation”.

Climate change affects us in several ways; the lack of rain leads to lack of water availability, and high temperatures affect crops directly, as well as increase the growth of pests and spread plant diseases, for example agricultural insects have a one-time breeding phase in the year, and with the increase in temperatures, it has multiplied several times unlike before… the world is not ready for this invasion of insects”, Fatima added to “Al-Elm”.

The encroachment of seawater also causes the salinity of agricultural lands, especially the lands of the delta area; being low and brittle, and thus losing the ability to produce crops with the same efficiency. Salt also spreads in groundwater reservoirs making it unreliable for agriculture. So, according to Fatima, Egypt developed seeds capable of tolerating higher salinity, and others resistant to pests, also started following field irrigation as an alternative to flood irrigation.

At the same time, Fatima believes that “climate fluctuation”; the instability of the maximum and minimum temperatures during the same day, has a strong negative impact on climate change as well, affecting some crops that need certain climatic conditions, thus blooms drop before bearing fruit, the thing which destroyed the mango and olive crops in some previous years.

An Egyptian study on the impact of climate change on food security, conducted by researcher Sarhan Soliman from the Agricultural Research Center in Egypt, and published in the Egyptian Journal of Agricultural Economics in 2019, had expected that some agricultural crops would suffer from a gap between their availability and consumption rates by 2050, in the light of expected effects of climate changes on acres productivity, according to the strategy of the Ministry of Agriculture for the cultivated areas during that period.

The study predicted the food gap to take place by 2050, with 19 million tons of wheat, about 117.9 thousand tons of barley, about 15.35 million tons of maize, about 271.2 thousand tons of sorghum, and 2.29 million tons of soybeans.

The food gap and increased consumption now make it difficult to rely on organic farming as a smart farming practice, for we will achieve less production at a higher cost to the consumer, and as the use of pesticides and fertilisers increases the productivity of the crop, farmers will regard much the quality if the price does not suit them”, said the researcher to “Al-Elm”.

Mohamed Fahim, head of the Agricultural Climate Change Center, believes that climate-smart agriculture includes all agricultural practises which regard the relationship of climate with plants, including simple practises that depend on knowledge of the weather.

The centre provides farmers with some smart climate recommendations, for example, if there is an expectation of an increase in the amount of rain within a few days, what is required here is to stop irrigation, and to drain water from the bottom of the plants so that the soil does not become saturated and suffocate, and if there are winds laden with dust in a land with onions plantations, for example, it is possible to spray plants as a precaution for the dust creates minute wounds in the plant facilitating infection with diseases, following these advices decreases the cost by using less pesticides and protecting the plants”, said Fahim who added to “Al-Elm”, “we call these practises climate-smart, as we are previously prepared and did not wait for the problem to occur. At the same time, they are natural practises that are usually practised by the farmer and do not represent an additional cost. We have been doing this for twenty years, but we have classified them and other practises under this term recently”.

Fahim believes that the recently developed field crops such as wheat, barley, corn, cotton and rice have become mainly oriented to climate adaptation, and in addition to saving time and water, they sometimes allow the plant to pass its critical stages of fertilisation and growth away from high temperatures. For example, previously, wheat was still planted in the month of June and at this time goes through a stage of growth called the “dough phase”, so with high temperature it is severely affected and its productivity decreases, but now this problem can be avoided.

 This story was originally published on The Scientific American

Hadeer El-hadary
Hadeer El-hadary is a freelance Egyptian journalist. She’s written for Egyptian and Arab websites such as Scientific American, Vice Arabia, and Shorouk News. Her work focuses on the topics of environment, climate change, science, health and women’s rights. She’s won an award from the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate for an environmental story about converting date palm seeds into fuel and other products, and another award from Plan International organization and the Ministry of Social Solidarity for a story about discrimination against women in job interviews.