Features: Saline Soils

Networks of Knowledge

INSTRUCTIVE CHANNELS OF COOPERATION HAVE OPENED through the project for Morocco and other countries. Because they share common problems of agricultural development, the countries draw upon each other's experience and expertise. Working networks today link multi-disciplinary teams of farmers, soil scientists, agro-engineers, hydrologists, and land managers who had little or no contact five years ago. The plants growing in Morocco's fields, for example, were imported under the project from Pakistan, where their seeds were nurtured and grown. At no cost, Pakistan now plans to support Tunisia's extension of demonstration sites in several provinces with a one-ton shipment of a variety of salt-tolerant plant seeds.

"In Pakistan, many farmers are growing salt-tolerant grasses for forage and for improving the land, and they've found that many other plant species perform very well," says Dr. Mujtaba Naqvi, the IAEA consultant coordinating the model project and former head of Pakistan's Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology. "We're now looking to share and transfer more of that experience, to help scientists and farmers develop larger-scale plantations on saline land."

Salt is an age-old farmer's nemesis that today limits agricultural development on more than 80 million hectares worldwide. Though global initiatives are targeting problems, farming saltlands may demand a new way of thinking, Dr. Naqvi says, one that weds science and nature.

Dr. Naqvi

"Agriculture traditionally is carried out by suiting the soil to the plant," he says. "But we've found that it is perfectly possible to suit the plant to the soil, even under adverse conditions." There are hundreds of salt-tolerant plant varieties, and laboratory and field research is adding to knowledge about where they grow best, and why. The results are vital to decisions on agricultural policies, practices, and land management at the heart of national, regional, and international development programmes.

The IAEA project's knowledge network extends well beyond the field demonstration sites -- to group workshops and courses on specialized topics, hands-on laboratory training in soil, plant, and water science, and periodic coordination meetings that bring together national project managers and international experts.

Mr. Ztouti and Mr. El Hattami in Sed El Masjoune are among those who have benefited from the opportunities. They visited Pakistan's sites in November 2000 to learn from counterparts engaged in the country's development of saline soils, and associated plant and irrigation management practices. Other scientists - including Mr. Athar Khan of Pakistan and Mr. M'hamed El Khadir of Morocco - have been awarded scientific fellowships to work with the IAEA's Rebecca Hood and colleagues. Over a period of several months, they plan and carry out research projects at the FAO/IAEA Agriculture and Biotechnology Laboratory, a branch of the Agency's Seibersdorf Laboratories near Vienna, Austria, that is operated jointly with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (See related story, Partners in the Lab.)

The lab work and field studies are essential paths to learning. They yield information about plant varieties that stand the best chance of growing in soil and environmental conditions back home.

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