The very technological progress that Muslim extremists hate, especially in agriculture, is the only real solution to the many problems of the Islamic world.
While angry Muslim fundamentalists were planning massive terror attacks on the United States and the rest of the Western world in recent years, American scientists were solving one of the biggest, most intractable problems of Muslim society: the ruinous buildup of salts in the irrigated croplands of the Middle East. Likewise, while Afghanistan was busy harboring Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the worst drought in thirty years was destroying both cattle and crops, threatening mass starvation. Both of these examples reflect the huge dilemma facing the Muslim world today: whether to maintain a religious fundamentalism that has failed to lift its people out of poverty and ignorance, or to reach out for the high-tech affluence that characterizes other First World societies.
A brief study of the Middle East would suggest that the ferocity of today’s Muslim extremists is closely linked to the historic harshness of the land and its precarious food supply. Critics, of course, would argue that rooting out terrorists is not as easy as planting corn. However, they would be overlooking a critical reason for food scarcity and the resulting instability it foments in the Middle East—irrigation. For some countries, solving this problem will require crops or technology that remove salt from the irrigated fields. For others, it will mean using farm techniques or herbicides to prevent moisture from evaporating.
Not a Drop to Drink
Dependence on irrigation in the Muslim world has raised the salt content of the soil to unacceptable levels, ruining millions of acres of its most productive and irreplaceable irrigated croplands. The famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon (located in what is now southern Iraq) were turned into salt-laden wastelands during Biblical times by long-term irrigation. Salt is naturally present in all water and soils, and irrigation gradually concentrates these salts into the root zone of the fields, eventually eroding the soil and making agriculture unsustainable. Plant breeders throughout the world have tried for a century to crossbreed salt-tolerant crops, but with little success. The engineering solutions to controlling salt levels involve both flushing the land with huge amounts of water, which most Muslim countries don’t have, and regulating the water flow by means of massive concrete canals and drains, which most Muslim societies can’t afford.
Fortunately, U.S. researchers created an ingenious solution to this irrigation problem just two years ago: genetically engineered crops that remove the salts from the soil and store them in their leaves. Dr. Eduardo Blumwald and a colleague at the University of California-Davis have genetically engineered tomatoes and canola to produce more of a natural plant protein that takes the salts out of the plants’ circulatory system and secretes them in the plants’ leaves. After the tomatoes or oilseeds are harvested, the vines can be carried away and the salt used for industrial purposes. Dr. Blumwald’s salt-tolerant canola plants remove twelve grams of salt each from the soil—and there can be 25,000 plants per acre. Moreover, Dr. Blumwald believes that scientists can activate genes that already exist in virtually all of the major food crops to make each of them as salt-tolerant and salt-removing as the tomatoes and canola he has already transformed. He might even be able to make them grow in salt water. Now, not only will Middle Eastern farmers be able to harvest more tomatoes and oilseeds, but they also will improve their crop prospects for future years while gaining a new source of cash income.
Dr. Blumwald’s breakthrough is further confirmation that biotechnology will be the most important tool for feeding people and saving wildlands in the twenty-first century. Of course, the Muslim world is neither funding biotechnology research (other than for mass-destruction purposes) nor, at present, importing desperately needed biotech seeds. Fortuitously, some solutions for the region’s inadequate irrigation do not require biotech.
For example, Afghanistan and Pakistan are suffering from the worst drought for both countries in at least thirty years. Since their normal rainfall is inadequate for growing most crops, their farm output is heavily dependent on snowmelt from the region’s mountains, which has been scanty for the past three years. Both countries will be approximately three million tons short of the grain they need this year, and millions of cattle, sheep, and camels on the Afghan plains are dying for lack of feed. In addition, twenty years of constant warfare in Afghanistan have destroyed nearly half of the hand-built irrigation systems that are vital for food production. In Pakistan, for the past two decades silt buildup behind the irrigation dams has cut farm water supplies by one-third, while the country’s demand for food has increased by 50 percent. Of course, in both countries’ irrigated farmlands, salt levels are inexorably building. Half a million Afghanis have been getting much of their income from 200,000 acres of opium poppies, but that awful and illegal enterprise will soon be stopped, by either U.S. policy or United Nations mandate.
Fortunately for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Muslim world, an important new farming technology called low-till is on the way. Low-till farming originally developed in Asia as a response to the needs of farmers of irrigated rice and wheat who had to plow their fields six to twelve times after each rice harvest to rebuild the flooded soil structure so that it could support dry-season wheat. This plowing would take weeks and destroy much of the organic matter and moisture of the soil.
Low-till farming uses herbicides, instead of plowing, to control weeds. Low-tillers simply make one pass over the field, putting the seeds and fertilizer directly into the soil through a slit cut into the ground by a rolling knife. The standing crop is left undisturbed, so that its roots can prevent wind and water from eroding the soil. The roots also provide channels for moisture to infiltrate instead of running off. Low-till wheat matures three to four weeks faster than regular wheat, before the hottest and driest weather can shrivel the grain. It also uses 30 to 50 percent less water than is needed for plowed wheat, and it radically reduces the amount of tractor fuel used.
Low-till has become increasingly popular in North America since 1975, and farmers in India and Pakistan have recently discovered how well it can work for them. In 1998, farmers on the Indian subcontinent planted only 7,500 acres of low-till wheat, but they’re planning on using low-till to plant 750,000 acres next spring, with a possible rise to 2.5 million acres within a few years.
Productivity and Peace
Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, the response in the Middle East to low-till farming and Dr. Blumwald’s research has been muted, to say the least. Just a few weeks after the American announcement of the new desalinating crops, Palestinian Muslims were videotaped dancing and singing in the streets after hearing the news of the September 11 terror attacks on America.
Reason says that the new desalinating crops should overjoy the Muslim world. (This technology should also overjoy the West’s environmental activists: the alternative to irrigated crops is to clear three acres of wildlife habitat to make up for each irrigated acre lost to salts.) To date, however, the response of both groups has been to attack the sources of technological success.
People in the wealthy United States and other rich nations find it easy to forget how closely connected social stability is to good land use. Most Americans today feel shame because some of our ancestors believed that they had to take the American Indians’ lands away. They ignore the fact that in that time, land meant survival, to both white settlers and tribesmen. High-yield farming has changed all that by making food abundant and cheap. Hence, the Irish Republican Army, which started a civil war over farmers’ land rents, lost much of its political attraction because of the surge of high-tech jobs in Dublin and Galway. Likewise, India feels less like going to war over Kashmir as it generates more jobs exporting computer services.
Solving a region’s food problems really can help reduce political tensions. As long as the Muslim response to biotech doesn’t result in an effort to destroy more successful societies in the name of Mohammed, as was the case when the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979 for attempting to bring his Muslim villagers into the modern world, there is some reason to hope for the region’s future development. Reason, however, cannot make much headway when Muslim clerics insist that business should be done according to Muslim laws, which, for example, prevent banks from charging interest on loans. Few Muslim countries have ever generated any strong economic growth, which has resulted in too many Muslim kids throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers on dusty streets, instead of learning science and computer systems. Improving these nations’ infrastructure would promote stability in the region.
The West can help. An international organization called Future Harvest built a farm research station in Syria, but this low-key effort needs more funding and more extension agents in other Muslim countries. In Afghanistan, building better roads remains the most certain way to brighten the nation’s future. Improved roads would help enormously in the nation’s efforts to market the tree fruits and nuts (raisins, apricots, mulberries, walnuts, and almonds) that are Afghanistan’s best cash crops, and to distribute them to the growing consumer markets in neighboring Pakistan and India. Better roads would also allow relief supplies to reach the needy during future droughts. They would assist nomadic herders in obtaining better livestock breeds and medications, resulting in higher reproduction rates that mean more meat and hides marketed from Afghanistan’s vast grasslands. Environmentally, new roads would reduce the cost of importing fuel oil, saving the eastern Afghan forests, which are being cut for firewood. Roads also help create off-farm jobs, which in itself would be a great impetus for stability in the region.
Peace will greatly increase food production in Afghanistan by allowing farmers to rebuild their irrigation systems. Sites for catchment dams, which slow the spring runoff and help recharge the wells and reservoirs, have already been identified. Of course, all of this will depend on whether Afghanistan’s new coalition government proves to be a forward-looking one. Until it does, improvement will be simply impossible. Until today’s Muslim countries can offer their citizens more hope for better lives through better farming techniques, they will be unable to break the cycles of poverty and violence that have too long betrayed a great people.