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How to Win a Fight Against Soil Erosion: Nuclear Science Helps Farmers in Morocco

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Farmer El Haj Abdeslam’s son drives a tractor to help with the farm work while scientists take soil samples from the fields. (Photo: R. Moussadek/INRA)

Farmer El Haj Abdeslam and his three helpers spent years fighting soil erosion that swept away their crops’ fertile ground, taking their incomes with it. Now Abdeslam and many Moroccan farmers like him are saving their soil and their source of food and money using soil-conservation methods selected with the help of nuclear science.

“Year after year, soil erosion was making the quality of my land worse and that made my farm less productive,” said El Haj Abdeslam, a farmer from the Tétouan region, whose 5-hectare chickpea and cereal farm feeds his family of seven and is his sole source of income. “Since the scientists helped me to conserve my soil, my farm has been producing 20 to 30% more with less input, and my income has gone up.”

The method was introduced in response to Morocco’s more than 100 million tonnes of soil losses each year. The project included scientists from the National Centre for Nuclear Energy, Science and Techniques (CNESTEN), the National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA) and the National Center for Forestry Research (CNRF). The scientists worked with the IAEA, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, to use fallout radionuclides and compound-specific stable isotope techniques (see The Science box) to pinpoint erosion-prone areas in Morocco and evaluate the effectiveness of various conservation methods. Morocco is one of 70 countries worldwide that uses these nuclear techniques for combating soil erosion with the help of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

Moroccan scientists collecting soil samples using a surface sampling cylinder for studying erosion using radionuclides. (Photo: R. Moussadek/INRA)

“Once we knew where the erosion hotspots were, we tested several soil-conservation methods using nuclear techniques to see how we could improve the situation. We adapted and combined different conservation methods already being used worldwide to see what worked best in Morocco’s environmental and agricultural conditions,” said Moncef Benmansour, Head of the Division of Water, Soil and Climate at CNESTEN.

Over 40% of Morocco’s total land area suffers from soil erosion owing to deforestation, overgrazing by animals and poor planting techniques. This is compounded by harsh climate conditions such as long periods of drought and short periods of intense rain. The steep ridges carved into the country’s landscape make the situation worse for the land and the farmers.

Abdeslam’s farm, for example, is on a sharp 10–15% slope. This means, unlike on flatter land, the soil has to withstand a greater force of gravity, which causes it to be more easily washed away by rainfall, especially the fertile top soil.

“Top soil is where plants get most of their nutrients and water needed for growing,” explained Benmansour. “When the top soil is washed away, it often ends up in water reservoirs where the nutrients encourage algae to grow. This causes the amount of oxygen in the water to go down, which in turn compromises water quality and harms fish populations.” Eroded soil causes more than 75 million m3 of water storage capacity to be lost each year in Morocco.

The team’s new conservation method helps to prevent soil from reaching water reservoirs. It combines growing cereal crops using no-till land management with growing fruit trees and shrub strips. No-till helps to leave the soil undisturbed instead of the digging or stirring of the soil associated with tilling. The roots and leftover parts such as stems and leaves from the selected plants improves the soil structure and overall soil health, which helps to hold the soil in place on Morocco’s steep hills.

“We have now reduced soil loss in the Tangier-Tétouan region by 40% and by around 60% in the Casablanca-Settat region,” Benmansour said. “The Ministry of Agriculture and the High Commission for Water and Forests and the Fight against Desertification are using the project results and methods to expand soil-conservation efforts to more farmers throughout the country.”

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