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Volume 23, Number 6November/December 1972

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A Greening In The Arab East

International troubleshooters backed by Arab scientists spur Middle Eastern agriculture toward abundance and profit.

Written by Joseph Fitchett
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

Dr. Lawrence Curtis, a white-haired man in khaki work clothes, has the accent of a farmer, but the vocabulary of a professor. He points at a low, gray-green plant growing out of a plot of dry, Middle East farmland. The plant is covered with a dull wax coating, almost a fuzz, and among its leaves hang hundreds of small spherical gourds resembling yellow baseballs.

"It's a buffalo gourd," he says, "and if it works out in the desert the way we hope it will, it could double, even triple, the Middle East's protein supply. Gourds, in fact, could be as important to the future of agriculture as the soybean and the potato.

"You see, inside the rind of the buffalo gourd there's a cluster of small, flat seeds that are nearly 35 percent protein—more even than soybeans. Crush them and you not only get a quality oil for human use, but the leftover pulp is an excellent cattle feed. So far we've gotten a ton of seed per acre and if this plant yields like that in the desert you could plant it throughout the Middle East. A lot of this land is barren, but the buffalo gourd will grow in barren land, and far better than familiar protein sources such as peanuts and sunflowers, so ..."

He shrugs eloquently and, delving into the wire wastebasket he carries as a briefcase, produces a small white plastic bottle and shakes out a palmful of glistening, crisp, white seeds rather like finely shaped rice. "Here, try some of these," he says. "These seeds come from a close relation to that gourd: try a few; they're fried with salt, that's all. How d'you all like 'em?"

There are hesitant takers, then eager second helpings as Curtis continues. "The American Indians used to eat the seeds of the buffalo gourd, which grows wild in the Arizona deserts. But in the United States the soybean already gives us more vegetable oil than the country can consume, so nobody's going to bother developing a plant like this. Out here, however, it could be part of the answer to the problem. It's got a root as thick as a weightlifter's biceps—I excavated one 15 feet deep!—so it can get down to the water. It could be part of the answer, all right."

The problem to which the gourd may be one part of the answer is a crucial one: how to produce enough food—and the right food—in a finite world where population demands are overtaking existing resources.

Surprisingly, the problem is new in the Middle East. Although 90 percent of the area is semiarid or desert, the fertile 10 percent includes some real agricultural surprises. In coastal areas where there is adequate rainfall, in the historic river valleys of the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates and Indus, and in countless tiny oases, cultivation is sometimes as modern and intensive as anywhere in the world. In fact, taken as a whole, North Africa and the Middle East produce almost as much wheat as the United States.

But in the future, according to Dr. Curtis and another 11 agricultural scientists on the Arid Lands Agricultural Development Program (ALAD), much of the other 90 percent of the land will also have to be used. That's why America's Ford Foundation, in cooperation with Arab countries from Algeria to Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey and Iran, set up ALAD, an agricultural task force spearheaded by an international team of experts backed up by qualified local scientists. By introducing new crops, raising yields on current crops, improving techniques of sheep-raising and modernizing land preparation, this task force, in cooperation with the new generation of Arab technicians and scientists, hopes to spark an agricultural revolution within a decade.

"We have to do it in a decade," says ALAD's first director, Hugh Walker. "The problem won't wait any longer."

A Texas banker who took a special interest in helping farmers, Walker is generally acknowledged to be the father of ALAD. By combining unbanker-like optimism with unfarmer-like persuasiveness, he convinced the Ford Foundation that, with a well-knit package of modern agricultural technology, historically arid lands could be made productive. He led a team of experts to the Middle East where, with the Lebanese Government's Agricultural Research Institute, three experimental stations were founded.

Despite ALAD's fabulous potential payoff and occasional penchant for glamorous-sounding gadgetry, the program operates on less than $1 million a year—partly because participating governments provide technicians and facilities on their research stations (Saudi Arabia, in fact, meets the entire cost of its share of ALAD) and partly because the foundation's scientists are dedicated men. For the most part they downplay theoretical research (such as that being done on the buffalo gourd), prefering to talk about their work on such basic food crops as wheat, barley, maize, sorghum and millets. They frequently have an almost philosophical commitment to the redeeming value of agricultural work in an over-urbanized, hungry world and regularly spend 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, in the fields working with local farmers and technicians. They believe ALAD's crash program can produce dramatic enough results to convince even the most cautious finance minister that agriculture can become a driving force in the development of the Middle East. Then the rest—men, marketing, credit—will follow.

Agriculture is already a major sector in most Arab countries. Overall, it accounts for one-fifth of the region's gross national product; nearly two-thirds of the population work in agriculture; farm products make up a large part of total exports—particularly if oil is excluded. Farming is, and will remain for a long time, the way of life of most Arabs.

Traditional answers to extending agriculture, such as increasing irrigation, are expensive and can even in some cases do more harm than good. For example, in some areas farmers have been so thoroughly wedded to old techniques that when irrigation came, they failed to drain off the extra water properly. As a result rapid evaporation left their fields covered with mineral salts that ruined the soil. Some farmers try to expand cultivated areas by planting marginal dry land in wheat: with luck, they get a harvest or two. Then comes a drought and—as the United States tragically learned in the 1930's "dust bowl" catastrophe—the plowed land, left with only a scant cover of vegetation, is swept away by the wind.

Problems like these have slowed the takeoff of agriculture. In many places crop yields per acre are still low—which, in a self-perpetuating vicious circle, discourages the investment and modernization necessary to improve the yield. As a result the Arab countries, which until the early 1950's were self-sufficient in basic food crops, must today import food. And if levels of consumption continue to rise they will have to double their wheat and barley production by 1985 to keep supply in line with demand.

ALAD has several approaches in mind. Better water management is one; the buffalo gourd may be another. But above all, ALAD wants to improve farming technology.

In the five years since ALAD went to work in the Middle East results have been remarkable. In Lebanon, with only 20 percent of the country's fields planted in new miracle wheats, the harvest increased 125 percent in 1971. Elsewhere, wheat yields that once averaged less than half a ton an acre have soared in experimental fields to better than two tons per acre. With the improved wheat varieties and better farming management, average yields, throughout the region can be expected to go to a ton an acre—a rate only slightly below performance levels in pace-setting Mexico, scene of the 1960's first "green revolution."

And there is much more to come. In two years, hard "durum" wheats—a profitable Mediterranean specialty used by Italians for pasta—will match yields of bread wheat. Corn, another of the region's important crops, may achieve a dramatic 70-percent increase thanks to new "synthetic" varieties being developed with ALAD help. And millets and sorghum, which fed countless generations 2,000 years ago, are being revived especially grain sorghum—a hard, tiny red grain that grows in knobby clumps, lives on very little water and makes a high-protein unleavened bread.

Starting with his own personal collection of plants, ALAD's sorghum breeder has now scheduled more than 12,000 strains of sorghum for testing. If a suitable combination can be found, one that would give high yields in poor climates, sorghum could become an important world crop again. Forage sorghum, for instance—lush, dark-green elephant grass which grows as thick as a Kansas cornfield—has exciting prospects for fodder in semiarid grazing areas fringing the Fertile Crescent.

ALAD experiments have also shown that new technology can transform rice yield levels and production volumes. Seeds of an improved variety developed in the Philippines, planted in Iraq in 1968 and properly fertilized, boosted the value of the rice harvest to $30 million the first year. And if ALAD can convince farmers that they should plant clovers or other high-yielding fodder crops on land traditionally left fallow during the year it is not under wheat, the region could boost animal feed 10 percent.

Such gains, combined with research on water and soil management and the design of specially adapted machinery, should make it possible for the Middle East to grow food as efficiently as anywhere in the world.

It was the threat of imminent world famine that led to what we now call the green revolution, the undreamt-of breakthroughs in wheat production in Mexico and wheat and rice crops in Asia which have helped to solve the basic global food problem for at least the immediate future. At the same time, the emergency produced a new approach to agricultural development: the organization of well-financed, dedicated international teams which worked directly—sometimes for decades—with local specialists and farmers in the laboratories and fields, experimenting with ways to improve crops and modernize farming practices. Today, for example, ALAD cooperates with such organizations as the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines and the Rockefeller Foundation in Turkey.

Plant breeding is a major area of research cooperation. ALAD's wheat breeder, Gerbrand Kingma, an American-educated, Mexican-trained Dutchman, draws on an international repertory of over 10,000 different known lines of wheat, selecting varieties which have the right characteristics for improving local wheat.

Although wheat originated in the Middle East, the region's modern varieties have been narrowed (by natural or rule-of-thumb selection) to a range of hardy but low-yielding plants. In the past, these qualities have seen Middle Eastern farmers through fat and lean years adequately. But the old-fashioned varieties cannot provide increased yields—basically, because if they are given more water and fertilizer, they convert much of it into more plant, rather than more grain.

Since the key differences in high-yielding modern varieties—heavier grain, more tiers of grain, more grains per tier, less hull and more flesh on the grain, more heads of grain—are inherited by plants, exactly in the way children inherit their parents' eye and hair color, Kingma tries to cross local wheat's hardiness and flavor with modern wheats' high yields.

Crossing two wheats requires a delicate touch. Using nail scissors, the breeder cuts out the tiny anthers on a budding plant, so it cannot produce its own pollen. He then strips away the green outer casing and uncovers the pollen receptacles. On the mating plant, the entire head is peeled and snipped off, then jabbed in the ground by its stem so the sun's heat will make the pollen emerge. A moment is needed for the yellow pollen to appear, and the male "blossom" is then briskly swabbed around in a small glazed cellophane envelope. The pollen shakes off in tiny yellow puffs, coating the envelope (officially known as a pollinating bag), which is then dropped over the recipient bud and clipped tight with a serial tag. If that plant produces seed, it can only be the result of the cross between the two plants chosen by the breeder. Wheat breeders such as Dr. Kingma and his Lebanese colleagues at the Tel Amara research station in the Bekaa Valley have made many thousands of such crosses, searching for the right hybrids.

A breeder's job only begins with the actual cross, however. A hybrid wheat normally requires up to 10 years' time to stabilize as a new variety, which then consistently reproduces itself in a recognizable, standard form. Until then, each generation of plants, row after row—several miles long if put end to end—has to be scanned, the best plants selected, and their seed replanted. In the selection process, the breeder can spend only a few seconds spotting the most promising individual plants, in a kind of deadly serious beauty contest. For the breeding problem can never be reduced to a simple list of desirable characteristics: the weight of each grain, for instance, tends to diminish as the number of grains increases. The art is to strike the right balance for given circumstances.

To hasten the process ALAD experts fly hybrid varieties around the Middle East. In just one shipment last spring ALAD shipped out of Beirut 150,000 packets of seeds culled from 3,000 hybridized varieties. They went to 18 Arab countries at locations varying from 17 degrees latitude to 37 degrees latitude, from 500 feet below sea level to 1,500 feet above. Some were planted in arid soil, some in irrigated land. They were subjected to variations in temperature, to insects and to diseases. The idea was to determine which varieties stood up best to all conditions; modern breeders seek the best average so as to get the benefits of standardization.

Such testing—and it's also done on corn, sorghum, rice and clover—shortens the time required to produce new varieties by moving seeds from a spring harvest for replanting somewhere else for a second season in the same year. Such rapid exchanges of seed enable ALAD to identify the best-adapted varieties for Middle Eastern soil and climate: the various national nurseries feed back their findings to the central data pool, and sometimes immediately spin off their own breeding program aimed at solving a specific local problem.

Breeding is not a panacea: for instance, unless a farmer's land is properly leveled, seed, water and fertilizer will be unevenly distributed, depriving some plants and also preventing mechanical harvesting. Annual land-leveling alone has increased yields on some Iraqi farms by 20 percent. But breeding is the key to radical changes. With improved varieties, crop rotations can be quickened and harvests can be timed both to avoid late rains that rot crops before they can be harvested and to insure that the grain all ripens at the same time. Wheat that was grown in valuable irrigated land can be switched elsewhere and the land put into more sophisticated crops. Wheats with poor milling quality can be improved. Grain which shatters when harvested mechanically can be reinforced, and the flour's bad baking potential (requiring imported additives) can be corrected by breeding. Breeding has also produced a stiffer stalk and, at the same time, by crossing with dwarf Japanese wheat, a shorter stalk which is less likely to buckle under the weight of the grain.

Plant breeding produces an important extra benefit too: more profit. And that in turn helps overcome the resistance to change which is a feature of a traditional agricultural society where a farmer is naturally reluctant to change any feature of a system which has insured survival for generations. But farmers who have seen their own harvests trebled are more willing to try new ways.

Breeding must be a continuous process because miracle wheats can bring problems practically on the same scale as their benefits. The conditions for bigger yields—more water, more fertilizer, thicker planting—also raise the risks of virulent disease. In the humid, densely planted fields of uniform varieties which modern breeders want to see, disease can spread like wildfire, and for some wind-carried killers, such as stem rust, the only defense is the wheat itself. Some varieties of wheat are resistant to rust, and in a typical old-fashioned wheat field, at least some of the different varieties represented would be resistant; so outbreaks were contained naturally. In green-revolution agriculture, however, a rust epidemic could wipe out an area's wheat production in the space of a couple of years, because only one variety of wheat is used. Aware of this, ALAD operates special, isolated nurseries where thousands of wheat varieties are systematically infected with Middle East races of rusts. Varieties which do not succumb are then crossbred with high producing but perhaps vulnerable varieties.

ALAD has also cooperated with governments and agencies to help set up special "trap nurseries" at strategic points throughout the area, each containing a broad cross-section of wheats. Outbreaks of infection in the trap nurseries act as an efficient early-warning system against diseases and insects, as they move on winds and weather.

Although in this way battles can be won to protect satisfactory wheat lines, the war unfortunately is never over. Stem rust, with its trillions of spores, constantly throws up mutations, some of which thrive on wheat previously immune to all known races of the parasitic mold. Tame rusts in the United States suddenly turned deadly in 1950, laying waste crops across vast areas of the country. As miracle wheats spread across Mexico a decade later, relatively weak local rusts also changed, attacking native wheats and improved varieties alike, and nearly annihilating both. Mexico's food supply—and farmers' confidence in the green revolution—was only saved because a second generation of improved wheats were ready to distribute to distraught farmers. The constant shifts in diseases like rust underscore the need for a permanent, aggressive breeding program like ALAD's.

ALAD also helps maintain a planetary germ-plasm bank in Mexico—a collection containing countless carefully catalogued seeds, representing thousands of varieties of wheat. Every few years, the collection is grown out and seed from the new harvest put back in the bank's phials. The germ-plasm bank keeps on tap for breeders a practically limitless reservoir of wheat characteristics, so that even if a terrible calamity ravaged the world's wheat fields to the last plant, it would be possible to replant. And out of the germ-plasm bank's thousands of varieties, one strain—perhaps one that otherwise would have been lost forever because of the worldwide popularity of certain "super-wheats"—might offer salvation in the form of immunity from the scourge.

ALAD concentrates on wheat because it is the Middle East's most important food crop and because in developing countries, subsistence farmers—who produce the food of over half the world's population and in some areas occupy up to 80 percent of the land—are destined to go on playing the major role in agriculture for many years to come. By concentrating on wheat rather than secondary crops, ALAD reckons to offer a better diet, and the hope of some economic gain, to the people who need it most.

Other developments are not overlooked. ALAD is also trying to increase sheep production—sheep are the chief source of meat and an important source of milk in the Middle East—and provide better grazing. Their work with sheep is unconventional for the region, but has great promise. Since the local awassi sheep usually produce no more than one lamb a year, ALAD crossed a prolific Greek sheep with the awassi and has come up with a crossbred animal that produces many more twins and triplets. Simultaneously, ALAD is trying to teach Arab farmers to plant forage crops—like clover—to provide feed for more sheep.

Even more promising is crossing high-performance corn hybrids to get high-performing genes that can adjust to a wide range of growing conditions; after two generations they stabilize at a high level of yield and their seeds can be replanted season after season. In 1969, by crossing 10 hybrids, Dr. Curtis got one champion that has yielded seven tons of corn an acre—20 percent more than the normal yield. By 1973, this "synthetic" variety could be in hundreds of fields in Iran and Lebanon.

Even with wheat, the biggest step remains to be taken: find a way to improve yields in the vast, unirrigated, but rainfed areas where the Middle East's poorest farmers work and from which more and more of the area's wheat will have to come as increased demand for luxury crops pushes wheat out of irrigated areas. Dr. Kingma is trying to decode the mysterious combination of traits that allows certain weedy-looking Middle East wheats to give some grain, even in very bad years. If he could then combine these survival qualities with high yield potential it is conceivable that the Middle East could again become one of the world's major graineries.

Last, but with enormous potential, there is the possibility of finding a crop that can grow in the vast tract of Middle East deserts—perhaps a crop like the buffalo gourd.

It is, Dr. Curtis warns, still a long way off, but progress is being made. Dr. Curtis has already started to propagate the best individual plants. He staples down the long tendrils and waters them so that a fresh root starts, which he then cuts away as a new plant. This cloning process produces new generations with geometric rapidity. Thus within two years, thousands of genetically-identical offspring could be ready to plant in dry areas. "Don't forget," Dr. Curtis explains, "every strawberry you ever ate, every variety of rose you ever saw, all started from one plant."

The latest surprise, a major breakthrough for the program, is that some of Dr. Curtis' star-performing gourds are male sterile—opening vistas of easy hybridization, with its promise of jumped-up yields, and easier propagation. (And since the gourd is a perennial, not an annual, the usual hybrid problem of buying fresh seed each year would not arise.) In the meantime, Dr. Curtis goes on crossing plants to obtain higher yields of seed, higher oil and protein content, quicker-maturing plants and a purer quality of oil which can be stored without turning rancid.

Winning acceptance for the buffalo gourd is another area of research. In Louis XIV's France, an enterprising minister of agriculture like Parmentier needed only to persuade the King to wear a potato flower one day on his resplendent court dress, for landowning courtiers to rush out and plant potatoes. For Dr. Curtis and his colleagues an equally appropriate solution will take longer—even in an age in which agriculture seems to be entering the realms of science fiction and in which solutions to problems are limited only by the extent of men's resourcefulness and determination to succeed.

Joseph Fitchett, a West Virginian educated at Princeton, currently covers the Arab countries for the Westinghouse Broadcasting network.

This article appeared on pages 24-32 of the November/December 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1972 images.