How a heat-tolerant wheat crop offers hope for water-stressed countries

Test project in Morocco described as 'truly revolutionary'

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Heat and drought tolerant varieties of wheat grown in Morocco over the past several years have produced the same yields with just half of the typical rainfall usually required, an expert has said.

The seeds have a deeper root system and this allows them to thrive in a water-stressed environment.

Aly Abousabaa, director general of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda), said the yields were strong even during 2021 and 2022 when Morocco experienced the “drought of the century”.

Icarda is a non-profit international organisation that is part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) network, a leading research body. It is involved in projects across the world in cooperation with host countries.

Speaking at the Middle East and North Africa Climate Week on Monday, Mr Abousabaa said it was crucial that small farmers across the region are given the ability to adapt to a warming world – and these types of projects showed the way forward.

We are able to do things today we could never have dreamt of doing 10 years ago
Aly Abousabaa, director general of International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda)

Adaptation is seen as a vital way for the world to deal with climate change along with mitigation, which means cutting emissions.

“Typical rainfall in Morocco is 350mm to 400mm a year,” Aly Abousabaa told The National. “But in the past two years the average in the location where it was tested was half of this amount. You immediately see there was a 50 per cent loss of water and yet it gave a typical yield. That is a truly revolutionary.”

Mr Abousabaa was speaking on the second day of the event at a panel discussion on how climate change is hitting the region.

He highlighted how Icarda is involved in helping farmers whether through using these types of crops or building more efficient greenhouse systems.

Many of these projects are at testing phase and need to be scaled up, but he said the potential is clear.

"Over thousands of years, plants adapted to a certain pattern," said Mr Abousabaa. “And when the climate changed, the plants got confused. This comes with penalties on water; penalties on yield production; and the introduction of new forms of pests and disease.”

Despite the negative reports about the fate of the planet, Mr Abousabaa said he felt hopeful about the prospects of how science, technology and using traditional knowledge from the past can lead to a more resilient future.

He said farmers need help to adapt to a situation where they will have less rainfall, higher heat, more degraded land and less diversity.

“You do that by giving them crops that have higher tolerance; if rains come a little bit later or less than expected then the plant is able to still give some yield," Mr Abousabaa said.

Finding efficient solutions

He pointed to a project in India where farmers were able to use an early maturing variety of lentils to grow crops during the 70-day window between rice crops.

Lentils typically take up to 90 days to grow but these seeds allowed farmers to be more efficient and make more effective use of their land.

The seeds are taken from the Icarda gene bank, a mammoth collection of seeds comprising 155,000 seeds from around the world, with 30,000 wheat varieties that have been sourced from Uzbekistan to Morocco.

The process to find a suitable seed typically involves selecting one that has already been grown into a warm country.

It then undergoes an "evolution process in the field done naturally".

“They are not modified in a laboratory but in the field through crossings and crop breeding with scientists,” said Mr Abousabaa. “The ones that have a much higher resistance to drought have a deeper root system. The plant tries to prepare itself to extract whatever little water.”

Another climate solution was a new type of greenhouse system that uses 80 per cent less water.

Countries across the Middle East and North Africa typically used to import the European model of greenhouses with plastic panels.

But this tended to be water intensive using evaporative water coolers to chill the greenhouse.

“We used a net instead of plastic [panels] so there is some form of ventilation and less capacity for maintaining heat inside. Then we got rid of the coolers,” he said.

Water is instead chilled using solar power and fed directly to the root of the plant.

There is no need to cool anything else and no need for the evaporative coolers, resulting in water savings of up to 80 per cent since growing is done in the cooler months.

The project was successfully tested across the Middle East, including in the UAE, and the hope now is that it can be scaled up and used commercially.

"We are able to do things today we could never have dreamt of doing 10 years ago," said Mr Abousabaa.

"I believe as things get worse there will be innovations in science and technology that will help us cope."

Mena Climate Week runs until Thursday in Riyadh

Updated: October 14, 2023, 6:12 AM