Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Looking Toward 2028, Salty Soil and Resilience in Agriculture at COP28

COP28 in Dubai marked a pivotal shift in climate conferences, introducing groundbreaking initiatives and focusing on agrifood systems.

COP28 in Dubai.
COP28 in Dubai. Matt Luna / Fanack.

It turns out that the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai was looking forward in new ways from previous conferences. Along with the first-ever language on phasing out fossil fuels in an overtime 198-country agreement; a first-day score of some $700 million on Loss and Damage finance; and a first Climate, Relief, Recovery and Peace Day with a supporting 80-country declaration; COP28 affirmed in a 159-country declaration that “agriculture and food systems must urgently adapt and transform in order to respond to the imperatives of climate change.”

Farmers in many corners of the world are facing tougher dilemmas under climate uncertainties that are only becoming more certain – to even have a realistic chance of feeding growing populations. The COP agriculture declaration recognizes that “unprecedented adverse climate impacts are increasingly threatening the resilience of agriculture and food systems” as well as the ability of many people, especially the most vulnerable, to produce and access food while facing increasing hunger, malnutrition, and economic stresses.

Sunday 10 December, 2023 was the Food, Water and Agriculture thematic day at COP28, linking organizations and governments working on future-focused ways of feeding people. A side event at the Food Systems Pavilion (next to the Water4Climate Pavilion) held a panel discussion on promoting the declaration of 2028 as the “Year of Saline Agriculture” for climate-resilient agriculture in sustainable Production Systems and healthy ecosystems in salt-affected areas.

The Netherlands Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, Meike van Ginneken, moderated this side event. In a statement to Fanack, Ms. van Ginneken said, “Saline agriculture is a subject where water managers and agronomists need to work together. I see three priorities. First, we need to manage freshwater in a way that we can limit salinization. Second, we need to develop and implement saline agricultural techniques at scale to ensure food production. And third, as the climate changes, we need to take freshwater availability into account in our spatial and economic planning. Not all activities will be possible everywhere even with the best technologies.”

Putting discussion into action, a not-for-profit agricultural research center in the UAE is working to identify, test, and introduce resource-efficient, climate-smart crops and technologies suited to regions affected by salinity and water scarcity. The International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), based in Dubai, is quite simply working on growing water-efficient crops in increasingly saltier soil.

cop 28 icba
Fanack representatives attended the launch event “Millet Demo Farm: From Seeds to Consumption (S2C)” at the ICBA headquarters in Dubai – with Dr. Tarifa Alzaabi (left center) and Nirmita Chandrashekar (right center) in photo. Fanack

On 7 December, Fanack representatives Reinier Hietink and Matt Luna attended the launch event “Millet Demo Farm: From Seeds to Consumption (S2C)” at the ICBA headquarters in Dubai. The opening was part of ICBA’s participation in COP28, and is also in collaboration on the “Year of Millets” designated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for 2023. ICBA highlighted its sustainable Millet Demo Farm with a comprehensive focus on the entire millet value chain from seeds to consumption.

Millets are nutri-cereals which have existed for some 4,000 years, but are not widely used. The crop typically has a low carbon footprint and is suitable for climate-impacted conditions especially in marginal environments. Millets are rich in nutrition with a unique composition including vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber, making the plant also suitable for livestock feed. The Millet Demo Farm and launch are in collaboration with the SELCO Foundation which is working to create an ecosystem enabling Sustainable Energy & Built Environments (SDG7) and essential services supporting health, education, and livelihoods.

Dr. Tarifa Alzaabi, Director General of ICBA, said: “As we work towards more sustainable and resilient agrifood systems, we must embrace neglected and underutilized crops such as millets. Not only are they climate-smart but are also nutrient-dense. So, millets can be a powerful tool in our efforts to adapt agrifood systems to climate change and improve food security and nutrition. But this requires that we conduct applied research studies and scale up innovations to achieve a lasting impact.” Dr. Alzaabi also chaired the launch event of “Women Alliance for Climate Action in Agriculture (WACAA)” at the UAE Pavilion at COP28 on 4 December. The WACAA aims to “bring together women leaders, scientists, policymakers, farmers, and organizations working to address gender issues and climate change impacts mitigation in agriculture.”

After the presentation of the Millet Demo Farm and how it is processed, attendees were treated to foods prepared from the plant. Muffins, cookies, cakes and porridge were offered by Luca Cobre, Executive Chef & Manager, Healthy Farm Eatery, UAE, to demonstrate how millet, which is gluten-free, can be taste-friendly as it offers an alternative food source. Possibilities of combining millet and wheat flour for baking offers a kind of hybrid solution that can also be prepared in more conventional recipes. 

“It is critical that we look at the entire MENA region adopting decentralized and sustainable clean energy-driven processing at the farm gate for smallholding farmers,” said Nirmita Chandrashekar, Senior Program Manager at SELCO Foundation. So far, ICBA has distributed over 1,700 samples of millet germplasm to partners in 29 countries.

Some 40 delegates attended the launch event, which included statements by H.E. Eng. Mohammed Mousa Alameeri, Assistant Undersecretary for the Food Diversity Sector, Ministry of Climate Change and Environment of the UAE; H.E. Dr. Abdulhakim Elwaer, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa; and H.E. Eng. Mohammad Jamal Alsaati, Special Advisor to the President of the Islamic Development Bank.

Additional agriculture and resilience COP28 side events on 9-10 December included “Climate Proofing Our Future – The Role of Soil,” “Farmers and Traditional Producers at The Heart of Food Systems Transformation,” “Building Water-Resilient Food Systems,” and “Accelerating Food Systems Transformation” and “Unlocking wastewater potential for sustainable food systems.”  These and other COP events examined steps needed to move beyond raising awareness, to accelerating partnerships and finance to meet the challenges of feeding more people in more climate impacts. 

Furthermore, the COP agriculture declaration calls for:

  • Scaling-up adaptation and resilience activities
  • Promoting food security and nutrition to support vulnerable people
  • Supporting workers in agriculture and food systems, including women and youth
  • Strengthening integrated management of water in agriculture and food systems
  • Pursuing broad, transparent, and inclusive engagement, including in policies and implementing science-based innovations

Recognizing the importance of agriculture and people in an increasingly limited shared space on the planet, H.E. Eng. Mohammad Jamal Alsaati of the Islamic Development Bank said at the ICBA event, “When I was growing up in Saudi Arabia, I would see vast stretches of farmland on each side of where we lived. And when I returned home after my university studies, I saw housing structures built up where the farmland used to be.”

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