Hisahm Mustafa, chairman of the National Center for Water Researches (NCWR), receives an interview with Xinhua in Qalyubia Governorate, Egypt, Jan. 17, 2017. Egyptian scientists recently claimed they have successfully applied a new method to bring an extra wheat harvest in winter, raising new hope to end the country's wheat shortage and achieve food self-sufficiency. (Xinhua/Meng Tao)
by Marwa Yahya, Xinhua writer Zheng Kailun
CAIRO, Jan. 21 (Xinhua) -- Egyptian scientists recently claimed they have successfully applied a new method to bring an extra wheat harvest in winter, raising new hope to end the country's wheat shortage and achieve food self-sufficiency.
"Planting wheat twice a year will double the production, save water, and open the door to achieve food self-sufficiency in Egypt," Hisahm Mustafa, chairman of the National Center for Water Researches (NCWR), told Xinhua in a recent interview.
AN EXTRA HARVEST
Egyptian farmers originally grow wheat once a year in November and harvest it in May. The whole process takes around six months depending on the nature of the soil, water availability and temperature.
The technique to achieve two wheat harvests a year is "vernalization," which means freezing the seeds during germination to accelerate the flowering process, Mustafa said.
"The new experiment is based on cooling dry wheat seeds to certain degrees to change their physiological compositions so they can start the growing process earlier," said NCWR researcher Aly Farag, who invented the idea and has worked on this experiment for three years.
By applying vernalized seeds on 200 feddans (840,000 square meters) of experiment fields scattered on four governorates in September and October, farmers will harvest their wheat as early as late January, cutting the whole process to three to four months.
"The seeds should be stored at one degree Celsius in a special refrigerator to prevent any damage or spoil," Farag explained.
He said that the idea came to his mind by accident when he saw farmers in Russia were spreading the seeds at the beginning of snow season. "The snow enfolds the seeds all the winter, and when it melts, the plants start to grow faster with more production."
The best part of the experiment, according to Mustafa, is that farmers will be able to sow new seeds for the second time in February after the winter harvest, enabling two consecutive harvests of wheat each year.
"Egypt will be the first country in the world to plant wheat twice a year," the NCWR head claimed.
Farag said another benefit of the new method is "shortening the period of watering from six to three months, which saved 40 percent of the irrigation consumption."
Egypt, a country has once been called "gift of the Nile" by the Greek historian Herodotus for its fertile soil owing to the annual flood of Nile, is currently struggling between a stagnated wheat production and the grain's ever-growing consumption.
Around a quarter of Egypt's population lives under the poverty line, meaning that subsidized bread is the primary source of daily calories and a staple feeding tens of millions of poor Egyptians.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Egyptians get 33 percent total daily calories from wheat, much higher than the world average of 20 percent.
However, at the other tip of the scale, with the arable area accounting for under 4 percent of the country's entire land, Egypt could only secure 50 percent of its wheat demand domestically, said Mohamed Lotfy, professor of agricultural economy at Cairo University.
Domestically producing around 8 million tons of wheat, Egypt imports over 11 million tons of wheat annually, making it the biggest wheat importer in the world, according to a study by FAO.
The wheat shortage has also been complicated by the country's dollar crunch, due to the sharp decline in sources of foreign currency in recent years.
Egypt pays billions of U.S. dollars annually for bread subsidy program and imported wheat, while the country's foreign reserves registered 24.2 billion dollars in December.
Lotfy told Xinhua that only increasing the productivity and efficiency will help Egypt achieve food self-sufficiency shortly.
"It was impossible to increase the production of wheat without increasing cultivated lands, so working with new techniques is the only concrete hope," the professor said.
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?
However, some people argued that the experiment looks too good to be true.
"I do not expect both harvests to have the same level of efficiency," Mohamed Fathy Salem, a former consultant to FAO said in a recent interview with online newspaper Mada Masr.
Salem said he was not able to examine NCWR's detailed research paper to verify its claims, but he called for a collaborative seminar to discuss the research.
"Not all types of wheat respond to this process of vernalization like in Europe," he claimed.
However, Mohamed Lotfy said that farmers using the new method will harvest 10.7 tons wheat per hectare a year, achieving a 78 percent increase without any additional cost.
The real challenge is of scope, not quality, officials from NCWR said.
Mustafa admitted that researchers from agriculture and irrigation ministries worked on applying the new methods over the past three years and did occasionally fail due to inadequate storage conditions: some farmers faced challenges in dealing with the refrigerators and could not accurately apply the new technique.
Another challenge is the lack of qualified researchers and experts to instruct farmers in the know-hows to use the technique, like adjusting the temperature.
The new method is still an experiment that might take a long time until being applied to a vast scope, Mustafa said, adding that the center will carefully examine the crops to be harvested at the end of this month to see whether modifications are needed.
"I'm optimistic about the experiment because it doesn't require complicated technology and farmers could use the common fertilizer with only half amount of water. It is very easy to be generalized across the country," said Lotfy who asserted new researches are underway to ensure the high quality of the harvested crops.
"Egypt can meet 75 percent of domestic demand by using the new method," Lotfy asserted.