Climate Change, Environment Prompt Search for Short-term Farming Solutions

A date farmer Kebili, September 2019. Photo by George Gale.

Climate change and rising temperatures are expected to have serious effects on Tunisian agriculture. Assessing some of these effects and proposing coping solutions were the focus of several presentations in Tunis in recent weeks.

“It is very, very serious what is happening,” said Samia Cherif, a professor in the Environmental Department at ISSBAT, the University of Tunis El Manar, and a member of the Editorial Committee of the Mediterranean Experts on Climate and Environmental Change (MedECC) network.

Cherif was speaking at a conference on environmental issues in the Mediterranean region held at Culture City in Tunis on Wednesday, January 29. The conference was attended by about 100 people.

“We may well change our agricultural practices; we may well change all of our plants; we may well change everything, but we arrive at a point where we have no solutions left, where we have no water, where it all evaporates, where it’s just too hot,” Cherif warned.

According to a World Bank study published in 2013, as climate change pushes up global food prices, the basic foods which Tunisia currently imports, such as wheat and sugar, are going to be difficult to afford. Apart from affecting the yields of strategic foodstuffs—the World Bank report notes that “yields for wheat, barley, and irrigated potatoes are expected to fall”— climate change is also set to affect the production of Tunisia’s export-destined cash crops, such as dates, olives, and citrus.

This, as Essia Guezzi, Project Officer at World Wildlife Fund North Africa, explained to Meshkal in previous reporting, “threatens agriculture and sources of subsistence for the population.”

Apart from the threat to food production and basic subsistence, researchers also expect broader economic consequences in the short-term resulting from climate change’s impact on agriculture. According to World Bank statistics, the agriculture, forestry, and fishing industry accounted for over 10 percent of Tunisia’s GDP in 2018, the most recent year on record.

Despite Cherif’s bleak assessment of the potential worst-case scenario, this hasn’t stopped researchers from considering new techniques to mitigate the effects as climate change wreaks devastation on crops. While some of those solutions involve new technologies, like drones, others are based on centuries-old cultivation practices.

“Right now, we’re effectively going back to ancient cultivation practices,” Cherif said during the conference. “For example permaculture, which can actually offer better growing outputs – and there have been studies done on that.”

Permaculture, a term coined in the late seventies, is a framework of agricultural design principles which uses a mixture of ancient techniques and modern ecological understanding to promote sustainable agriculture and ecological resilience. Some of the core principles of permaculture include an emphasis on biodiversity and maintaining natural resources such as soil nutrients. The Permaculture Research Institute calls it “a multidisciplinary toolbox” that “integrates land, resources, people and the environment through mutually beneficial synergies – imitating the no waste, closed loop systems seen in diverse natural systems.”

Professor Abdelaziz Mougou, who attended the January 29 conference and identified himself as an Emeritus Professor of Agronomy and former State Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, told Meshkal that farmers might need adapt to climate change by changing the types of crops they grow. Mougou gave the example of almonds, which are currently grown in Tunisia but require cold temperatures.

“Either you need to find a new variety that can thrive in elevated temperatures or you need to move them to a colder region which can support them,” Mougou told Meshkal.

On the other hand, Mougou also argued that warmer temperatures in Tunisia might enable the cultivation of crops which would normally be grown farther south, such as coffee. However, regardless of temperature changes, climate change is unlikely to significantly increase Tunisia’s annual rainfall, and a tropical crop like coffee requires at least 750 millimeters of annual rainfall. Tunisia currently experiences about 450 millimeters of annual rainfall.

Nevertheless, specialists at the conference appeared to agree that it was important to increase the diversity of agricultural products so that unforeseen consequences would not lead as easily lead to disaster.

“Now since we’re going to have a problem, especially in the Mediterranean…with viruses and bacteria. If you have a monoculture, it will kill everything all at once,” Cherif told Meshkal.

Insects, Pesticides and Technology

According to Professor Kaouther Lebdi Grissa of the National Agronomic Institute of Tunisia (INAT) which is a college of the University of Carthage, an often-overlooked effect of climate change that is nevertheless likely to have a significant impact on the agricultural industry is on insect life.

As temperatures rise, many species will survive the winter in greater numbers and begin to appear earlier in the season, according to Lebdi Grissa, who was presenting her research at a January 24 conference held at Cité des Sciences in Tunis. Some species are likely to take advantage of those longer seasons by increasing the number of times they reproduce per year, further increasing their populations.

In addition, new invasive species of pests are likely to migrate north seeking lower temperatures, further affecting the ecosystem in ways that are difficult to predict.

This may increase farmers’ dependence on industrial pesticides.

“It’s a compromise,” Cherif said on the issue of pesticides at the January 29th conference. “Effectively, we can’t go back. If you do even a little bit of farming, you know that you can’t do without pesticides because you can lose the entire crop down to the last fruit.”

However, Cherif argued that newer types of pesticides exist which are less harmful to the environment, and Tunisian farmers can switch to using these types of pesticides.

Testing Farming Drones in Sidi Bouzid

Meanwhile, other researchers are trying to add technological innovation to improve overall productivity.

Elyes Hanfi, an aeronautical engineer and the technical and cultivation director at the National Company for the Protection of Plants, or SONAPROV by its French acronym, presented the group’s findings from a three-month pilot program held in Sidi Bouzid during the summer of 2019 that tested how drones might be used to increase productivity and efficiency in agriculture.

SONAPROV, which is a government-funded company linked to the Ministry of Agriculture, received funding for the project from the Regional Commission for Agricultural Development Bizerte (CRDA Bizerte) and the Bizerte 2050 Association which is an NGO partner of the Bizerte Smart City development project.

Hanfi’s team used two types of drones, one fixed-wing (like a plane) and the other quadcopter (like a helicopter with four individual rotors).

The fixed wing drone, equipped with high-definition cameras that capture images in both visual-spectrum and infrared, is used to map out a given parcel of land by taking many individual photos that are later stitched together by a computer system, Hanfi explained.

When these images are compiled, they give the user not only a highly detailed map of the land, but also a 3D model of its topography.

These models provide a variety of data, including: slope rates, which can be used to optimize irrigation systems; available sunlight in any given point, which can help farmers decide where to place different kinds of crops, and the density of vegetation to show where crops are growing well and where they are struggling.

By analyzing the color of soil and crops, the system can also determine how healthy plants are and show where soil varies in composition, according to Hanfi. That helps farmers determine where they may need to use more fertilizer or water their crops more frequently.

If the user needs to get a closer look, the quadcopter drone, which is equipped with its own articulating camera, can hover and move more precisely in the air. That can be useful when trying to visually diagnose problems in hard-to-reach places like the tops of trees.

Though they were not tested in this pilot program, similar drone systems which are able to automatically dispense pesticides are already commercially available. Such systems, when used in conjunction with the 3D models created by other drones, might make pesticide use more efficient and enable farmers to target specific areas where they are needed, decreasing the overall amount of chemicals released into the environment.

Despite these advancements, however, there is little room for optimism as long as the root causes of climate change are not addressed urgently and comprehensively as the existential threat that they are.

“It’s no longer a question of politics, or energy, or war. If we have nothing left to eat, if we have nothing left to drink, war is left behind. For me it is a bit like a kind of war,” Cherif said.