Globally, soil and water salinisation has been on the rise over the past decades due to a range of factors. By one estimate, 1.128 billion hectares of land is affected by salinity and sodicity to varying degrees worldwide. It is also estimated that some 20 per cent of the world’s irrigated land is affected by salinity. At the same time, groundwater salinity is a growing problem as a result of seawater intrusion and excessive withdrawal in some parts of the world.

Against a backdrop of droughts and other constraints on agriculture exacerbated by climate change, these problems are more pronounced in arid and semi-arid regions like the Middle East and North Africa. In these regions, increasing demand for food and water continues to put a considerable strain on limited freshwater and land resources.

“In this context, it is crucial that the productivity and utility of land and water resources degraded by salinisation and other processes is increased to meet current and future food and water requirements. Decades of research shows that saline water resources, as well as other types of non-fresh water, can be efficiently used for food, feed, and biofuel production. And salt-affected soils can be rehabilitated and brought back into agricultural use by means of nature-based approaches like biosaline agriculture,” Dr Tarifa Al Zaabi, Director-General of the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), told Khaleej Times in an interview.


What is the mission and primary objectives of the ICBA?

As a global centre of excellence in agricultural research and development, our main goal is to develop solutions for sustainable agriculture and food security in saline and dry environments around the world. We harness science and innovation to make agrifood systems more resilient and sustainable under climate change. These solutions range from stress-tolerant crops for food and feed to resource-efficient technologies for water and land and vary in sophistication from low-tech to high-tech.

Our centre has worked for over two decades to identify, test, and introduce crops and technologies suitable for areas with constraints on agriculture such as heat, salinity, and drought, among others. We focus our efforts on supporting smallholder farmers in different countries who depend on agriculture for food and livelihood. We work with local and international partners to equip them with skills, tools, and resources to mitigate and adapt to agricultural risks and improve their lives and livelihoods.

We also support other national stakeholders, including decision makers, researchers, and extension specialists, by providing them with tools and technologies to address challenges to agriculture at policy and other levels. Our center has provided technical assistance and policy support in developing systems and strategies for drought management, water management, and salinity management in the Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa.

What is the significance of biosaline agriculture and how ICBA contributes to its advancement?

Scientists around the world, including researchers at ICBA, have done a great deal of work to study ways to improve agricultural production and ecosystem resilience on salt-affected lands and in other degraded environments through the cultivation of forgotten and underutilized plants that are naturally resistant to salinity, heat, and drought, as well as the use of innovative technologies. In particular, there has been considerable research on the farming and use of halophytes like Salicornia for different purposes, including food.

We believe it is important to adopt alternative approaches and technologies to ensure food, water, and livelihood security in resource-constrained environments under changing climatic conditions. And biosaline agriculture holds considerable promise for helping to achieve this goal.

So, our objective is to promote the adoption of biosaline agriculture as a strategic solution for and a complementary route to boosting food and water security in these areas. We work at three levels. First, we identify, test, and introduce crops and technologies suitable for saline and dry environments. They include crops like quinoa, Salicornia, millets and others, and technologies for soil and water management. Second, we develop individual and institutional capacities in preventing and mitigating the impacts of salinization, among other things. Third, we provide evidence-based recommendations to decision makers on the potential of biosaline agriculture to improve agricultural productivity and sustainability.

What regions does ICBA focus on in terms of implementing biosaline agriculture solutions, and why are these regions important?

For more than two decades, we have conducted research-for-development activities and programs in around 40 countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, the South Caucasus, and sub-Saharan Africa. Agriculture in these regions faces a variety of challenges, including salinity, water scarcity, and drought.

So, we focus our efforts on these areas as approaches and technologies based on biosaline agriculture are more suitable and have the potential for increasing agricultural productivity while reducing pressure on fresh water and other resources.

For example, the Middle East and North Africa is the most water-stressed region in the world. But there is untapped potential for use of saline water and other types of non-fresh water for agriculture. Other regions also have problems with water availability and soil and water salinity. This means that agrifood systems in these regions are at most risk from climate change-related impacts, with both food and water security undermined.

Therefore, it is important to mitigate and manage salinity and other threats to reduce their effects on agriculture and, by extension, food security. It is necessary to harness science and innovation in our efforts to enhance food and water security. For this purpose, we need to adopt new ways of thinking and doing things.

Our research to date shows that both treated wastewater and saline water can be suitable alternatives in arid and semi-arid regions. A combination of salt-tolerant or halophytic plants and resource-efficient technologies can provide a sustainable solution to the shortage of fresh water for agricultural purposes.

We believe this and other similar solutions can help to turn the current challenges into opportunities to boost food and water security and improve livelihoods.

How does ICBA contribute to the development and promotion of innovative technologies in agriculture, particularly in challenging environments?

We work to support sustainable agricultural production and climate-proof agrifood systems. So, the technologies and innovations for agriculture and food production we seek out and promote need to be sustainable, cost-effective, and resource-efficient.

As we test crops and technologies in different countries, we see that it is often necessary to adapt them to local conditions before they are introduced on a large scale. What works in one environment might not be suitable for another one.

Sustainability must also be at the heart of our decision-making. We must innovate to grow more with less. We also need to consider economic and technical feasibility of all innovations as different stakeholders have different capacities and resources. As innovation cannot happen in silos, we believe in the power of collaboration. We work with both public and private organizations around the world to develop innovative solutions.

At ICBA, we also have a technology testing platform which is specially designed for testing and improving innovations developed by private companies. We provide technical backstopping and scientific oversight to private companies to test their innovations and evaluate their technical feasibility and other aspects under local conditions. We believe partnerships help us leverage a vast and diverse pool of expertise to achieve a greater impact on the ground.

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Somshankar Bandyopadhyay