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Food for thought with ICBA

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Agriculture experts discuss the need for crop diversification and sustainable farming practices to ensure food security and healthy diet in HSBC’s new Food for Thought series.

Biodiversity and sustainable farming will be essential tools in fighting climate change. This will be a challenge in areas where increasingly harsh weather conditions put a strain on food production and scarce water resources.

In HSBC’s new Food for Thought corporate series, experts from the UAE-based International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) discussed the importance of crop diversification and sustainable farming practices for food security.

“ICBA worked together with local partners and authorities to promote sustainable agriculture and urban farming. We have several initiatives to improve food security and nutrition, enhance water security and environmental sustainability, and improve livelihoods in the world's marginal environments, including the UAE,” says Dr. Tarifa Alzaabi, ICBA’s Acting Director General.

Huge scope for crop diversity

While roughly 6,000 out of 30,000 edible plant species have been cultivated for food throughout human history, only about 150 are produced globally at any significant scale today.

Currently, just three crops – rice, wheat and maize – provide 60 percent of the world's food energy intake, according to ICBA.

This narrowing of the human diet has resulted in micronutrient deficiency and obesity, which are associated with a rise in noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and cancers. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), noncommunicable diseases kill 41 million people each year, equivalent to 71 percent of all deaths globally.

“Crop diversification holds the key to sustainable food production and healthy diets. It is seen as a way to cope with a variety of threats to agricultural production which ultimately impact food security,” says Seta Tutundjian, ICBA’s Director of Programs.

“There are many neglected and underutilised crops which are more nutritious. Quinoa and millets are some great examples,” she furthered.

Ancient crops such as quinoa, a gluten-free grain containing protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, are more relevant to environments which are most vulnerable to climate change, water scarcity and salinity and which are home to an estimated 1.7 billion people.

Food for the Future

ICBA's partnership with HSBC dates back to 2016, when it started a pilot Food for the Future project on regional food security.

Supported by HSBC, the project was implemented in collaboration with the Research Institute for Sustainable Environment (RISE) at the American University in Cairo. It won second place at the International Business Excellence Awards two years later.

Building on this success, ICBA launched in 2019 another phase of the project in Egypt, titled Food for the Future II – Building Sustainable Networks and Unleashing Entrepreneurial Potential of Farming Communities Living in Marginal Areas.

Climate-smart agriculture

“In Egypt, we are looking at unconventional sustainable farming approaches for salt-affected regions,” says Dr. Alzaabi.

“We aim to equip farmers and entrepreneurs with all the services (they need) to produce alternative crops. We are talking about climate-smart agricultural entrepreneurship,” she says.

The project, which introduced quinoa and salt-tolerant Salicornia plants to Egypt, also focuses on capacity development in integrated farming in the UAE. It has supported more than 2,500 farmers in both countries.

“The project improved and diversified the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in marginal areas of Egypt, implementing many farm practices and activities that ensure the sustainability of water and land resources,” says Dr. Henda Al-Mahmoudi, Plant Physiologist at ICBA.

“More than 30 products were developed out of quinoa and some of them as a combination of quinoa and Salicornia. More than 350 farmers and rural women were trained,” she says.

Food systems under pressure

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic a year ago, ICBA has conducted online technical training courses for over 600 professionals and has organised webinars to raise awareness about food security, nutrition and crop management practices.

A rapid increase in the global population – around 1 billion people will be living in African cities by 2040 – and the severe impacts of climate change are putting global food systems under pressure.

Agro-biodiversity and crop diversification hold the key to sustainable food production and healthy diets for all, including lower-income populations living in areas affected by extreme weather conditions.