News » Thoughts for Food: Sustainable Agriculture and its Technological and Social Opportunities

Thoughts for Food: Sustainable Agriculture and its Technological and Social Opportunities

As climate change, population growth and water shortages put increasing pressure on food security in the region, the German Science Centre in Cairo focused its annual conference on promoting sustainable agriculture in Egypt and Germany.

The conference brought together researchers, academics and entrepreneurs from the two countries on October 9th, 2016, to exchange expertise on enhancing agricultural practices through an interdisciplinary approach. The issues discussed during the meeting are global, but with more than 90 million mouths to feed in an arid climate, Egypt faces particularly urgent challenges regarding food supply in the future.

“All progress in agricultural activities will literally be eaten up if we don’t manage the current population growth rates worldwide,” said H.E. Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany in Egypt Julius Georg Luy during his opening remarks.

The conference follows a similar event dealing with renewable energy last year and could provide a stimulation for a new Egyptian-German agriculture research cluster, in addition to the already existing water cluster. Experts split up into three working groups to discuss a wide range of topics including hydro and aquaponics, nanotechnology applications in farming and raising livestock.

Session 1: "Meeting Tomorrow’s Demands: Challenges in the Transition from Conventional to Sustainable Agriculture"

When Amr Bassiouny wanted to start a business in hydroponics four years ago he did not know anything about its technicalities. He quit his full-time job and dedicated time and effort to experimenting with various hydroponic models until he was confident enough to establish Egyptian Hydrofarms in 2013, which has since grown into one of the top local sustainable agriculture businesses.

Bassiouny and others like him are leading the way in growing high quality vegetables, lettuce and herbs without soil that can fetch a premium price in high-end grocery stores in Cairo. Hydroponic beds recycle water and thus use substantially less water than conventional agriculture. They also use less energy, fertilizer or chemicals than a typical farm and do not need occupy arable land, which scarce in Egypt.

“Most of the existing models are based on European and American technologies and in Egypt those models are not applicable,” said Bassiouny, who toiled to create his own local solutions for the Egyptian desert.  

About seven months ago, Egyptian Hydrofarms partnered with a Dutch organisation to develop the technology and both parties came up with a joint model that focuses on growing leafy greens in hot climates. The model is expected to be implemented in 2017.

Faris Farrag, another pioneer of sustainable farming in Egypt, has created an aquaponics system that yields both fish and plants. Through a closed water cycle system between greenhouses and fish tanks, tilapia provide nutrients for the plants and the plants cleanse the water for the growing fish. In five years, Bustan Aquaponics has managed to penetrate the local market by producing more than 20 kinds of herbs and greens, poultry, oils and fish.

The potential of up-scaling Aquaponics along with other sustainable solutions remains untapped. The overregulation and under-implementation of existing regulations are common challenges for business owners and farmers alike, according to Farrag, who would like to see increased cooperation between research centers and private industries.

He also highlighted the importance of having sustainable leadership in the field or a strategic vision that works across ministries and remains continuous when government officials change.

Perhaps the oldest entrepreneurial initiative in this field in Egypt started 40 years ago, when Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish, founder of SEKEM group, dreamed of having a sustainable agriculture community in the middle of the desert.

SEKEM today has helped more than 2,000 people in the process of shifting from conventional to organic agriculture, producing various crops on 700 acres of land with many of the seeds produced locally. It also established the SEKEM development foundation (SDF) which includes a wide range of entities; schools, kindergarten a vocational training centre and Heliopolis University for sustainable development. The company has cultivated 1,200 hectares of reclaimed desert now worth US$36 million.

SEKEM CEO Helmy Abouleish attributes his family’s success to caring for the soil quality, relying on renewable energy on the farm, integrating sustainable agriculture products into a fair-trade supply chain, and most importantly, creating a community for the farmers, workers and residents.

Closed greenhouses are another solution being tested in Spain to tackle water and land resource challenges. Martin Buchholz, CEO and co-founder of Watery GmbH in Berlin said these systems save energy, increase plant productivity and use desalinated water. They could be particularly useful in desert climates but are not yet ready for the mass market due to a high initial investment cost.

Session 2: “Innovations for Sustainable Agriculture"

In the process of shifting from conventional to sustainable agriculture, the recycling of resources plays an eminent role. Different byproducts and residues (water or organic matter, for example) are potential resources that could be reused to achieve increased productivity through different technologies.

Converting agricultural waste into biogas is one of the simplest methods of utilizing such organic material, and while it is being employed in Egypt, the exact scale is unknown. Most reports agree that Egypt has 5 to 6 million tonnes per year in rice straw and animal manure that could be used, according to Cairo University Engineering Professor Ahmed Gaber, who is the chairman of Chemonics Egypt. Gaber’s team at Chemonics has begun to address this issues by exploring the opportunities related to agricultural waste in each governorate. They are also studying whether anaerobic digestion could be feasible to convert some municipal solid waste to electricity.  

Meanwhile in Europe biomass is increasingly being used as a fuel source, particularly in Finland which uses biomethane and transports it to France, which recently introduced a feed-in-tariff for the gas.

Soil fertility is another issue crucial to maintaining agricultural productivity. Over the years, soil fertility has gradually declined in Egypt due to repeated over-application of inorganic fertilizers, soil erosion, nutrient depletion due to the continuous tillage, soil acidification and lack of information on soil characteristics. Biotechnology and microorganisms have the potential to fix those issues and alleviate soil salinity especially in the Nile Delta, according to Nabil Omar, a researcher at the Agriculture Research Centre (ARC). Omar is studying the use of microorganisms to reduce environmental stress on soil and plants.

Drought and rising soil salinity are considered some of the most pressing issues in Egypt’s agricultural landscape. A joint project between the University of Munich and Egypt’s National Research Centre is attempting to develop drought and saline-resistant plants with the help of phenotyping.  Phenotyping is the process of comprehensive examination of plant characteristics in terms of growth, development, tolerance, resistance, architecture, physiology, ecology, and yield.

Session 3: "How to Feed the World? Resource Efficiency by Biotechnological Applications"

Although technological advances are not keeping pace with rising environmental stress triggered by climate change and other factors, biotechnology shows a lot of promise in helping sectors including agriculture to adapt.

"We are facing big challenges as agricultural scientists, represented in growing populations and degrading environments, and no single solution can solve all of those complex issues,” said University of Bonn Professor Michael Frei. “But crop biotechnology can definitely offer one solution to that.”

Techniques including the sequencing of crop genomes, the possibility of gene discovery through genetic mapping and genetic engineering or more recently genome editing help scientists understand crop biology and develop crops resistant to certain environmental factors.

Nanotechnology is also becoming more widely applied in many sectors, particularly in water treatment, agriculture, livestock health, and animal production in Egypt. Scientists are using nanotechnology to develop smarter, more targeted vaccines for livestock, according to Amira Adel Al-Hossary, veterinary professor at Assiut University.

Scientists are also using bio-control agents to combat pests. Ahmed Raouf, senior researcher at the ARC, outlined the use of trichogramma evanescens in the control of crop-eating moths. These tiny wasps lay their eggs in the moth eggs, thus breaking the moth life cycle, which has been used to prevent the moths from eating sugarcane crops.

Learn more about the conference and presentations here.