Innovation, agriculture and a changing climate

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Innovation, agriculture and a changing climate


Dr.Ismahane Elouafi is passionate about innovation.

A scientist, geneticist and the Director General of the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), Elouafi and her team are working to find innovative ways of addressing soil salinity and irrigation challenges in some of the world's most water insecure environments.

On 18 February 2016, Elouafi will be joining Périn Saint Ange, Associate Vice-President of IFAD's Programme Management Department (PMD) on stage during the 39th session of IFAD’s Governing Council.

In the lead up to the Governing Council, IFAD spoke with Elouafi to discuss innovation, agriculture, and how ICBA and IFAD are working together to help small farmers adapt to climate change in the Middle East and North Africa region. 

Q: What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the world today?
"The world is at a crossroad. We have not been paying attention to how we are using our natural resources, and we are just now realizing that natural resources are not indefinite. We only have a certain amount that we can use.

"Out of all those natural resources, I think that the most limiting one is water. Water is a shared resource on which life, the environment, and most of the human activities depends on.

"We are at a point in time where there is increasing competition over water.

"About 80 per cent of the global water consumption is used by agriculture. But we've got industry and suburban life that are demanding much more water that they used to. India and China, with 30 per cent of the world's population, are developing at a rapid pace and need much more natural resources, especially water.

"All these factors may worsen the climate change scenario that we are already witnessing. For example, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has some of the highest water scarcity in the world. In the best case scenarios of climate change, the impact on water is going to be pretty high in this region.

"So water is already scarce, and it is going to become much more scarce in the years to come."

Q: When you took the helm of ICBA in 2012, why did you strive to make innovation a strategic priority for the organization?
"I believe that innovation is a powerful tool to help us combat the problems we face in the agricultural sector. If you go back into history, it was always an innovation that created change and had the greatest impact on humans and humankind.

"Agriculture in marginalized environments is characterized by non-arable land, poor quality of soil and problems with the quality and quantity of water. And, behind marginal environments, you have marginalized people, so that’s where you are going to find some of the poorest people in the world.

"At ICBA, we believe that if you don’t have innovation, you can’t make marginal environments productive. If we have a population that is growing from 7 billion people to 8 billion people by 2025 and 9 billion people by 2050, and we need to produce more food for them, we need those marginal environments.

Kanayo Nwanze, President IFAD, speaks with Dr.Ismahane Elouafi at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai. For more than a decade, IFAD and ICBA have worked together on projects that are helping smallholder farmers improve their productivity and resilience to climate change. Photo courtesy of ICBA.

"In the past, the world has overlooked marginalized environments. We have instead focused on intensive agriculture in the last century. Intensive agriculture was very high input agriculture. It was the green revolution, which was a wonderful revolution that increased the yield of wheat and maize and rice tremendously. But we were very much focused on arable land, so throughout the last decade, we have used every arable land that exists.

"This is why we need innovation. We need to step into the marginalized environments to have enough production for humankind. And that’s why, at the centre here, we are looking at different ways to make changes in those marginal environments."

Q: Tell me a bit about the work that IFAD and ICBA are doing together? How is it making a difference in the lives of poor rural people?
"IFAD has been one of ICBA's strategic partners and has helped ICBA tremendously increase its impact on the ground.

"Through the IFAD funding we tried to help the population of farmers in the MENA region understand what climate change means for them and how to respond. And what we found was that farmers do see the impact of climate change. They have no doubt about it. They feel it, and they are living with it.

"Through the IFAD-supported Adaptation to Climate Change project, I saw together with my IFAD colleagues that farmers are quite open to trying new crops that are climate resistant as long as they have a market for it. And often, the market for certain crops is created by the farmers themselves.

"It's within the population, it's at the village level, and it's even at the country level. We were happy to hear success stories from seven countries in MENA: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, and Tunisia that took part in the project.

"And it is through IFAD-supported projects, since 2003 to now, that we have been able to introduce new crops such as beetroot, quinoa, distichlis. We also researched the issue of salinity and water scarcity in the region and we proposed solution options to decision makers.

"We worked with the farmers to get them to reuse waters, treat waste water, drainage water, etc. Reusing non-traditional water resources and not letting any water go to waste is important for sustainability."

Q: Looking forward to the next 15 years, what key investments do you think the world should be making to help solve some of these global challenges?
"If we want to get to the target of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we need to eradicate poverty. We need to decrease malnutrition. The only way to do this is to pour money into research and development (R&D).

"There has to be a differentiation between invention and research. Research doesn't always mean that you get a new toy or gadget out of it. Sometimes it only means taking a look at the process or how things are done.

"When you are talking about the eradication of poverty, I think devotement goes hand-in-hand with R&D. You don't do R&D to get a publication, you do it to make the innovation that makes a difference, and you implement that innovation on the ground.

"So I think R&D is one of the areas that has to be invested in, and specifically in the regions which have the highest poverty levels. We tend to perform R&D in the Western world and then apply it in Africa. I don't think it should continue this way because we need to have a much more customized research and solutions for each region. It is a must to involve national stakeholders in the decision making process."

Q: Innovation means a lot of different things to different people. What does innovation mean to you?
"I believe in innovation as a person absolutely, and the environments we are working in require us to think about technological innovation. If we don’t get technological innovation, we can forget completely about agriculture in marginalized environments.

"Remember, innovation doesn’t need to be an invention. It can be a different approach or idea, and the impact should be much higher. I would like to quote Bill Gates, who said:

“If we create the right environment for innovation, we can accelerate the pace of progress, develop and deploy new solutions.”
"What he is saying is that what you gain with innovation is higher impact, positive change and at a pace that is much higher than what you would have done if you didn't use innovation.

"So we are not changing the outcome, we are changing the quality of the outcome, and we are changing the speed that we are going towards it."