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International Year of Soils: Sudanese Farmers Improve Crop Productivity Thanks to Isotopic Techniques

International Year of Soils: Sundanese Farmers Improve Productivity Thanks to Isotopic Techniques

Sudanese farm women learning how to use the drip irrigation system. (Photo: Dr. Imad-eldin A Ali Babiker/ARC)

Monitoring how atoms behave in soil, water and fertilizer is helping small-scale farmers in the arid Kassala region of Sudan to more efficiently cope with a changing climate. After a successful pilot project supported by the IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), thousands of farmers in the region are now benefiting from a combination of drip irrigation and isotopic techniques to more effectively grow vegetables.

“When water runs low and soil goes dry, a farmer does not just risk losing an income, it also means families may not have enough food to eat,” said Lee Heng, Head of the Soil and Water Management and Crop Nutrition Section of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. “So understanding what’s happening in the soil, and when and how much water is needed can make a big difference.”

Agriculture is the primary source of income and livelihood for up to 80% of the population in Sudan, with onions, jute marrow, rocket, and purslane being staple crops in the Kassala region. Most of the 21 million hectares of agricultural land relies on rainfall, while only around 11% is irrigated. This means that unpredictable changes in rainfall, fluctuating temperatures and water scarcity, as a result of climate change, can be serious obstacles for many farmers in the country, including women who also play an important role in farming in Sudan.

“Both men and women work in the farming sector in Sudan. Women do a lot of the hard work, with planting, maintaining and harvesting of crops. This project helps empower them with the knowledge to use irrigation and fertilizer applications to improve their crops and reduce how much labour they need to put in,” said Lee Heng. According to the United Nations Women organization, a growing body of evidence shows that women's economic empowerment significantly contributes to sustainable development and poverty eradication, as women re-invest most of their income in education, nutrition and health of their families.

Women farmers, along with men, played an active part in this project by the Joint FAO/IAEA Division, in cooperation with the Horticulture Research Centre Farm of the Agricultural Research Corporation (ARC). They were trained in how to use the drip irrigation systems to efficiently water crops and when and how much fertilizer to apply to help plants flourish.

After learning about the drip irrigation system, the farmers work to maintain their fields as the crops grow. (Photo: Dr. Imad-eldin A Ali Babiker/ARC)

Atoms in the soil

“There’s a lot happening at the atomic level in soil, which can be a rich source of important information that can help farmers,” said Lee Heng. She explained that the scientists at the ARC research station spent a season in the region gathering data using a sensitive nuclear instrument called a soil moisture neutron probe (SMNP) that follows neutron behavior in order to monitor the moisture levels in the soil. The scientists also tracked the movement of nitrogen fertilizers by monitoring labelled nitrogen-15 stable isotopes — atoms with extra or missing neutrons —  in the soil to determine how effectively the crops are responding to and taking up the fertilizer.

“The SMNP probe and the labelled stable isotopes bridge that atomic information gap between the soil and what a farmer would need to know for maintaining their crops,” said Lee Heng. The tests at the ARC research station using onion plants showed crop yields increased more than 40% and water use decreased by more than 60%, when compared to the commonly used surface irrigation approach that distributes water in an uncontrolled way along the soil surface.

“Once the studies were complete, the scientists trained the farmers in an easy-to-understand way so they can maintain their crops and the irrigation and fertilizer systems. The farmers don’t need to understand nuclear science to benefit from the project,” she added. The typical drip irrigation system used in the Kassala region is easy to maintain and operate and is suitable for small land areas up to 2000 square-metres. 

Scaling up

The project initially began with more than 50 farmers in five villages and 62 women farmers in six villages in the north of Kassala city. It was expanded to three more villages and the system was adopted by 75 more families. After it was proven successful for small-scale farms, the technology began spreading from village to village. The Sundanese Red Crescent (SRC) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) took an interest and began scaling up the technology in efforts to help more farmers adapt to climate change and ultimately improve livelihoods and relieve poverty in the country. It is now used by more than 2000 farmers in the region, half of whom are women.

This story is one example of the fundamental role soils play in people’s lives around the world. It underscores the goals of the 2015 International Year of Soils which set out to draw attention to the important relationship between healthy soils, food production, water management and development. To mark the end of this year-long initiative, the IAEA and the FAO and in partnership with the International Union of Soil Scientists (IUSS), will host an event on Monday 7 December 2015 with more than 100 international specialists in soil and water to recognize the achievements made over the years and chart out the future challenges and opportunities related to soil, agriculture and development. 

Last update: 26 July 2017

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