International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture plans more model farms and to grow its own salt-tolerant seeds for wider distribution.
Sustainable farming ideas spread across UAE
Launched two years ago, the Dh22 million project by the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture has taught 750 farmers from eight Middle East countries about improved farming and aims to reach another 750 in the coming year.
"The objective is to spread into more farming communities in terms of number, quality and intensity on the farm," said Dr Abdullah Dakheel, head of the project. "We want to have more activities done with the farmers."
The project involves the UAE, Oman, Yemen, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia, and seeks to help farmers make their land more resilient to changing environmental conditions.
Morocco will be added next year for knowledge-sharing and workshops.
"The bottleneck for all these projects is obtaining the right seeds, because any look into adaptation of agricultural systems and changing environments means we have to find better-adapted genetic material," Dr Dakheel said.
"This is the key element of finding more resilient genotypes."
Researchers identified crops and seeds that could thrive in a desert environment and, therefore, improve the quality of the land and food produced.
"Adaptation to climate change in agriculture means finding more resilient systems that can cope with the changing of the environment," Dr Dakheel said.
"This means higher temperatures and more salinity."
In recent years, the harvesting season has shrunk drastically.
"It used to be six to seven months in some places and now it's much less," he said.
"The heat is coming earlier and that's how it affects crop production in the region. So we have to find a genotype of crop that has a shorter life cycle while maintaining the level of accepted productivity."
With the genotypes identified, the team at the centre must produce seeds that can be more widely spread.
"That's the limiting factor because it has to be produced locally," Dr Dakheel said. "The major thrust now is to scale that up, which requires technical and policy changes, which is the problem we're facing.
"We're creating facilities for seed production and knowledge by training farmers on how to produce these seeds and handle these genotypes so they can adapt them on a larger scale."
The centre will now need the Ministry of Environment and Water and the Farmers' Services Centre, a government body given the task of modernising Abu Dhabi farms, to adopt the practice.
"This is the biggest challenge as an international organisation," said Dr Dakheel. "We can only support that many farmers, up to 2,000, but the resources will not allow to scale up a large adoption."
There have been successes. Since last year, researchers have been able to extend the shelf life of fodder from a month or two to a whole year, by processing it into silage or blocks and storing it properly.
They also plan on adding more model farms in Al Ain and the Northern Emirates to the current four in the Western Region.
"The next stage will be seeking how to get more farmer participation, international donor and government support to scale up," Dr Dakheel said.
Last November, the centre organised a field school in Egypt, gathering farmers from across the region to show them how they could improve each aspect of their farming.
This year, another school is planned but will target rural women.
"They carry most of the job in the field, planting and specifically in the post-harvest, like feeding the animals and getting their products," Dr Dakheel said.
Scientists will also start working on genetically modifying seeds to make them more resilient.
"But even if we have the best genotype, it will not succeed if put under poor management," he said.
"So it's about having an integrated package that involves managing the crop, field, soil, irrigation and post-harvest."