I was recently on leave in Michigan, spending three days at home, including Thanksgiving Day. I certainly had much to be thankful for. My assignment in Afghanistan has been a safe one so far, and given what I see in that country, the developed world should never take for granted what it has. On my way back to Afghanistan, I traveled on a diplomatic passport to Syria, thus representing the United States and in particular, the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There I visited the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas or ICARDA.
Entering Syria requires an entry visa, and these take some time to obtain. But my supervisors in Washington, D.C., worked with the Syrian Embassy, and we got the document just in time. I traveled from East Lansing, through Chicago, then Washington, D.C., then Frankfurt Germany, then Dubai, United Arab Emirates. In Dubai, I boarded an Emirates Airlines plane to Damascus, the capital of Syria, for a three-hour flight.
Once in Damascus, I was met at the airport gate by my driver, who transported me north on a four-lane highway to Aleppo, a five-hour trip. Damascus is a huge city of 5 million people. Many are refugees from Iraq, having fled that country in the last few years because of the war there. Interestingly, a passenger riding with me, who spoke excellent English, told me he has 21 family members living in Damascus. All are Iraq citizens who had been living in Baghdad as recently as three years ago. Now they, and nearly a million others from Iraq, stretch this city’s ability to assimilate them into the Syrian economy. Afghanistan has refugees as well, although in the last few years many have returned home.
ICARDA is located in the Fertile Crescent, the founding location of production agriculture some 10,000 years ago. The soils here have been cultivated for centuries, and to this day, the Syrian farmers believe the mark of success is a clean field. No-till or even reduced-tillage practices have not been adopted because residue or crop stubble is the mark of a lazy farmer. The research facility owns and farms the Tel Hadya station, nearly 5,000 acres. The test plots include cultivar trials for improving wheat, barely, chickpeas, lentils, faba beans and a few orchard crops, including olives.
The soils here contain 20 to 30 percent calcium carbonate, which helps control these highly buffered soils in the pH range of 7.9 to 8.2. The parent material is limestone, much of which is mined for building material and road construction. The cation exchange capacity is remarkably high at 40 to 50 milliEquivalent (meq) per 100 grams of soil. The clay content, at nearly 65 percent of the total soil texture, is a smectite mineral. These clays have large surface areas and are particularly adept at cation exchange on the negative-charged mineral surface. Soils here have relatively low soil organic matter, in most cases less than 1 percent. This is not too surprising given that all residue is removed, or if not, multiple tillage operations increase the rate of decomposition in these warm, arid soils. Finally, at the Tel Hadya station rainfall is infrequent. On an annual basis, the station records about a foot of water, largely in December and January.
I will note here that one of the agronomists is conducting a long-term carbon sequestration project (10 years) with an effort to minimizing tillage and hopefully increase soil organic matter in these largely mineral soils. I did not talk to anyone at the station about soil tilth or soil ecology, so this is a research area that is worthy of investigation.
ICARDA is much more, however, than the Tel Hadya research station. The campus facility has at least three dozen buildings. The headquarter site is home to at least 20 scientists. They are from all parts of the Middle East and northern Africa. They speak English, which is the universal language for science, yet their own languages for conversation amongst themselves. There are a handful of scientists from Europe and, on occasion, from the United States.
The strength of ICARDA is a multidisciplinary approach to the core mission: reduce poverty through productivity improvements integrated with sustainable natural resource management practices. This is a big topic, of course. I may distill it down to two primary objectives, at least in terms of production agriculture: improving water harvesting and usage on crops in the arid world and breeding drought-tolerant crop seeds that can exist in climates where rainfall is not sufficient to satisfy crop consumptive demand.
Research work includes investigating land use for rangeland and utilizing small-ruminant animals (goats and sheep). The focus is providing a human diet that includes the cereal crops of wheat (durum and bread) and barley and the pulse crops of lentils, chickpeas and the faba bean. Workers teach farmers and technicians how to harvest water, increase irrigation efficiency, minimize land destruction (timber harvest, slash-and-burn practices), reduce water and wind erosion and increase the potential for income generation by marketing higher value crops (fruits and vegetables).
You might ask, as I did, how one goes about undertaking such a large task? ICARDA networks with collaborators around the world. They are part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) that oversees an additional 15 centers around the world. (There is one in Washington, D.C.) The funding source includes the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). There are many other collaborators including several land grant universities in the United States.
ICARDA is a publisher of technical material. Their website lists hundreds of publications for use anywhere in the world. The center offers seminars and course instruction in its area of responsibility, and it often brings students to ICARDA for training.
The center is located in Aleppo, a city of two million, which is considered by many to be the heart of the Islamic world. I visited six or seven mosques during my day of city touring.
I was driven back to Damascus for my plane ride back to Dubai. I then traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, and then took a military helicopter to Bagram Airfield. I will now complete my assignment in Afghanistan with seven weeks of work, then in late January return home to Michigan and my career with NRCS.
I am looking forward to being home and seeing the world through a different perspective. PD