Farming a Desert

I remember my shock when, as a ten-year-old, I realized that my summer home state of California was both a producer of fruit and vegetables and a desert- complete with cacti. It took me a long time to accept that people would so obviously defy nature in turning a desert into farmland, and go through so much trouble piping water in from other states.

Desert farming takes place all over the world, I later found out, from California to India to Saudi Arabia to Australia. A New York Times video clip entitled “Farming the Desert” speaks about an initiative underway in Egypt to boost agricultural output.

Farmers in the Nile Delta have always dealt with environmental problems, but in recent years they have faced a different kind of calamity. Cairo’s urban sprawl is eating up a lot of otherwise arable land. Some small-scale farmers are forced to work on fields surrounded by houses with no immediate sources of water. Egypt’s population boom is very much to blame for these problems, and the region is now importing about half its food. The 2008 spikes in global food prices made the need for increased domestic production clear.

Deep in the Sahara Desert, where temperatures can top 110 degrees, lies a green oasis called Toshka, which is one of Egypt’s solutions to domestic demand for lower food prices. With a lot of fertilizer and water pumped over more than 150 miles of canals, officials hope that Toshka farms will be the answer to their constituents’ grief. When the Toshka farm project was revealed, officials said it would be an accomplishment on par with the pyramids. So far only 30 thousand acres have been planted, nowhere near the half-million planned. This government-supported initiative has been criticized as an unwise use of limited water resources.

In neighboring Israel, where modern drip-irrigation was invented, desert farming has a slightly different meaning, according to another New York Times clip entitled, “The Risks of Desert Farming.” The country has embraced desalinated ocean water for irrigation, as well as recycled sewage water. Some farmers have become so successful that Israel has become one of the world’s leading greenhouse food exporting countries. The government is planning on expanding desalination and sewage recycling projects so that Israel can have all the water it needs by 2013, making it impervious to the threats of drought that make desert farming most risky.

With desertification both from unsustainable farming practices and global climate change, questions and challenges of desert farming must be focused on worldwide so that when necessary, it will be possible for nations to claim any lands that are, or can be made, arable. It is primarily in the Global South that these problems have arisen, and many lives depend upon their being successfully addressed.


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