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10 ways to grow in the desert

Sustainability / -

10 modi di coltivare nel deserto

Man has always faced challenges in the desert. Due to climate change, arid lands have been increasing. Whether it is with the aid of new technologies or millennial wisdom, here is how we can grow food from the dry sands.

The oasis of Ghardaya in Algeria
Each oasis has a distinct type of  irrigation system: for example, in the Sahara, Ghardaya in the valley of Mozab, water flows under a dry bed of an ancient river. Over one million date palms are irrigated by way of a capillary system of dikes, dams and wells that channel, sort and dispense water, ensuring that  just the right amount will reach the gardens.

The oases of Souf, Algeria
In the region of the Souf, south-east of Chott Melrhir, the water table is close to the surface. The system of oases is an example of an ingenious method to water the palm groves, through  the technique known as Ghout. Instead of irrigating the surface by use of wells and canals, basins are dug for the palms, so that their roots reach the water in the aquifer directly. It is a plan that avoids water losses due to evaporation and offers plantations effective protection against wind and sand.

Project Oasis Josefowitz in Israel
Near the agricultural research station Hatzeva Yair, a team of scientists at Ben-Gurion University has developed and tested a structure for the sustainable production of fruit and vegetable crops in arid areas. In the southern regions of Israel,  rains are scarce and the average temperature in August is 50 ° C. An experiment in progress since 2010 and inspired by permaculture, it has already proven that fruit trees can be grown in the desert. A series of agricultural experiments have tested different qualities of irrigation water and four different crops.

Sand nanotechnology, United Arab Emirates and Germany
La Dime, a company of the United Arab Emirates, and the Fraunhofer Institute in Freiburg have developed a revolutionary nanotechnology to create a waterproof hydrophobic sand that can be spread in a thin layer directly beneath the desert sand. The goal is to prevent the evaporation of precious moisture that forms in the desert at night, making it available to the plant roots. They have already conducted an experiment just two kilometers from the Dead Sea, where rain rarely falls and the temperature in August is 50 ° C and where this nanotechnology sand is already in  the production phase.

The Sahara Forest Project in Qatar
It is possible to create cultivation systems near the coast by combining the technology of greenhouses and seawater with that of solar thermodynamics. The proximity  of the sea guarantees the constant presence of water that is sent to a desalination plant,  using a  solar energy pump. In short, you use what you have in abundance to produce what is needed most.  With a vast desert area, sunlight, salt water and CO2 can produce food, water and clean energy. The first project  was commissioned by the government and funded by Yara International ASA and the Qatar Fertiliser Company. It  covers an area of ​​10 thousand square meters in the vicinity of Measaieed, an industrial city of Qatar. The plant has already produced its first crop of cucumbers.

The green dots in Saudi Arabia
In a series of satellite images, NASA has documented the evolution of farming in the Saudi desert from 1987 to the present, showing the emergence of huge green dots. Each dot is   a field about a mile in diameter and is sprayed with water by means of systems rotating  from a water reserve that cannot be reconstructed, as it was formed before the last ice age, about 20,000 years ago.  Rain (in the Saudi desert about 100-200 mm of water per year) is not a viable replenishment as it normally does not reach the groundwater. Geologists estimate  that within 50 years,  the pump  system will be economically sustainable.

Aquaponics in Bustan, Egypt
Aquaponics is an agricultural and growing method that combines aquaculture and hydroponic cultivation, in order to obtain a symbiotic environment. Water from tanks for aquaculture is pumped into those hydroponic, so that the plants that grow there can filter it to draw  nourishment, while extracting the waste substances produced by fish. The bio-filtered water   can then be pumped back into the tanks for aquaculture and the cycle is resumed.  At Bustan, the first commercial aquaponic plant in Egypt, young olive trees grow separated from the desert only by thin layers of glass: their cultivation uses 90 percent less water as compared to the conventional crop.

Extracting Water from the Air  by the Air Drop
An interesting invention came out of a global competition from Sir James Dyson in 2012.   Edward Linacre presented a device able to extract water from the air called AirDrop. That was inspired by the technique that beetles adopted in the desert. Even the driest air contains water (humidity). A machine draws air from the surface to underground, through pipes  forming condensation, resulting in  water  directed towards the roots of the surrounding crops.  The invention is now a working prototype.

The asparagus in China
There is no desert in this location, but in  areas nearby,  there is cultivation of crops specifically to control it. The researchers  from Shanxi Academy of Agricultural Sciences conducted a successful three-year experiment with asparagus. The vegetable, also widely used in Chinese cuisine, was found to be a suitable windbreak in a project to combat desertification in Youyu, Shanxi Province. We were trying to plant vegetation capable of curbing the sand in the north and west of China; areas that are particularly threatened by the advance of deserts, facilitated by dry winds. Asparagus has shown its ability to withstand drought and cold, and has also been grown on barren land. They were able to  yield 20 tons.

The Aflaj Oman
Oman is located in one of the driest areas in the world, where for centuries, water has been a priority. Symbolic of   Omani ingenuity are the  Aflaj, five of which have been recognized UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They are old ducts that still distribute 900 million cubic meters of water per year. Fields and gardens are watered for short periods of time, typically a half   hour, and many villages have a sundial to mark the rounds of irrigation.



Thierry Benoit. The real strength of the SRI method is its flexibility

Innovation / -

Courtesy of IFAD

Thanks to the project implemented in Madagascar by IFAD and Cornell University, the yield of the rice cultivation has been increased. Nevertheless, the Intensification System still divides the experts. These are the arguments of those in favor.

Its name is SRI – System of Rice Intensification – and it could represent a huge step towards the agriculture of the future. But like all potential miracles, it stirs up contrasting passions and causes divisions.
The initiator of SRI, in the 1980s, was a French Jesuit called Henri de Laulanié, who by carefully observing rice-workers in Madagascar developed a system designed to produce more rice with less seeds, less water and less fertilizer. How? By using younger plants, planted one by one at a distance of 25 centimeters, only intermittently watered, but frequently and precociously weeded. The real impact of this method – which was perfected by Professor Norman Uphoff, of Cornell University – has been seriously doubted by other scientists and researchers, such as those of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which contests its results and its large scale applicability.
This is why, in the margins of the Official Awards Ceremony for Best Sustainable Development Practices by Feeding Knowledge, we asked Benoit Thierry – Country Program Manager of the Asian and Pacific Division of IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) – to illustrate the strong points of the project carried out in Madagascar by Cornell University, which won the prize in the Thematic Priority 2 category (Quantitative and Qualitative increases in Agricultural Productivity).
The SRI system has raised various doubts relating to its large scale application and effective productivity gain. What is your reply to the detractors of SRI?
Naturally, there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done, but thanks to this method the income of the rice farmers using it in Madagascar increased by 75 percent. Actually, the great thing about the SRI is that it’s such a flexible system. Because it can be used with modern seeds or traditional seeds, with chemical or natural fertilizers. The most important result of this project is that it has demonstrated that there are many different methods of applying this method.
The criticisms from the IRRI, for example, regard the fact that we didn’t use modern seeds. Actually, we wanted to show that even using local seeds we could still increase their past productivity. And we did: the traditional seeds which used to produce roughly 1 ton of rice per hectare, when grown with the SRI method produced between 6 and 8 tons. Therefore, the seed’s potential is high, and the farmers who have used the same seed for centuries can now, thanks to this technique, finally liberate the full potential contained in each seed.
And can this happen in every country?
Yes, because SRI was invented in Madagascar, but it has already been applied by researchers in other countries. In the Philippines, for example, 1 million farmers use it, and likewise in India. It exists everywhere: in Latin America, Asia and America. And people adapt it to their own regions, also using it for crops other than rice: maize, wheat, etc. In the end, the person who invented SRI simply developed a system based on various good practices regarding the use of water, of seeds and of crops. SRI helps farmers to create a good product, using very simple methods. And it’s highly important that this is achieved while saving huge amounts of water!
Apart from your best practice project, which other projects most struck you, among the 18 award winners?
Above all I was amazed to see so many good practice projects coming from so many different countries, and with such variety. I was especially struck by some of the case histories from the Middle East, particularly from a country like Syria, where farmers – despite the war – still do their best to produce food. This is truly extraordinary, because it shows the potential of their country, their people and their territory.
The photo story of the Madagascar System of Rice Intensification project is exhibited in the last room in Pavilion Zero in Expo Milano 2015. 

Red chili around the world

Culture / -

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© George Steinmetz:Corbis
Stuart Westmorland/Corbis
Floris Leeuwenberg/Corbis
© Keren Su/Corbis
© Hubert Stadler/Corbis
© Snapper:RooM the Agency/Corbis
© George Steinmetz/Corbis
© Romain Cintract:Hemis/Corbis

A panoramic view of red chili in a photo gallery that reaches from China across to Argentina and from Morocco to France.

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