Farmers last – the failure of dryland farming in West Asia and North Africa

Paper for conference on: “The Water-Food-Energy Nexus in Drylands: Bridging Science and Policy” Rabat 11-13 June 2014.

By Brian Chatterton, dryland farmer.

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The title of this conference, reinforced by the diagrammatic representation of the nexus, promotes the view that food comes from the interaction of water and energy with the help of science. This model excludes farmers who have been producing food for thousands of years before science was invented. Farmer have to deal with a more complex nexus of inputs that includes land, capital, marketing and time as well as water and energy.
Dryland farmers have to cope with a high incidence of drought. Low cost farming is an effective strategy to reduce losses due to drought but a high proportion of agricultural research is funded by corporations that sell inputs to farmers. Reducing costs is not on the research agenda.
Agricultural research in the region has promoted the package of nitrogen fertiliser, plant breeding and other inputs that created the Green Revolution of the 1960s. In dryland areas where a lack of spring rainfall makes the yield response from nitrogen fertilisers highly variable, farmers are not prepared to take the risk of using high nitrogen applications. Little research effort has been expended on alternatives that cost less and have lower risks.
The scientific community has become convinced that a lack of rainfall is the limiting factor for agricultural production in the dryland farming zone of WANA. Cereal yields in WANA remain at half those of Australia and pasture productivity is only about one quarter when compared on a like for like basis. The low farm productivity is not due to a lack of rainfall but a failed farming system.
Sheep production has the potential to be a profitable enterprise in the dryland farming zone of West Asia and North Africa provided sheep can be fed on low cost pastures. Low cost pasture technology, based on species native to WANA, has been developed in Australia. These legume based pastures have been shown to be equally productive in West Asia and North Africa but the transfer from the research centre to farms has usually failed because of the absence of farming knowledge.
While sustainable, farmer-based rotations (such as the Zaghouan rotation) exist for the WANA region they have little chance of wide scale adoption as long as nothing is done to support them.


In 1989 Robert Chambers (Chambers 1989) called his book “Farmer first.” That was a cry in the wilderness that has remained unanswered.
The bridge between science and policy is sturdy and well trodden. The bridge between dryland farming and policy is rickety and deserted. Farmers are not the first to be consulted on dryland farming policy. They are not even in the front rank.
The title of this conference reinforces the view that farmers and farming are too insignificant to have an input into policy. The explanatory diagram assumes that food comes from the interaction of water and energy with the help of science.
Food production is a human activity carried out by farmers who have been doing so for thousands of years before science was invented. Farming is not simply a very large plot experiment operated by unskilled labour. Farmers have skills in resource allocation, particularly time, that are beyond the comprehension of the agricultural establishment.
Once water and energy are selected as topics the participants are selected for their expertise in those fields. In the real world of farming water and energy are merely two of the many resources needed for food production and real farmers need to balance their returns to water and energy as well their returns to land and capital. Since they also want to make a profit for themselves, they must give the greatest priority to returns to labour and their own labour in particular. The water-energy nexus is too narrow a description of food production.

Drought – a farmer's viewpoint.

In dryland farming zones drought is not an exceptional event. It is part of the normal risk of farming.(Chatterton 1981) I farmed in Australia in a climatic zone almost identical to Rabat and I allowed for drought in my farm planning.
There is a simple and effective means of coping with drought. Farmers must keep their costs down. A low cost strategy is the opposite to the conventional wisdom in the temperate and irrigated zones where water supplies are much more reliable. In those regions the aim is to chase higher yields as the risk of total failure due to drought is slight. Obviously one has to obtain a return on the additional expenditure greater than the cost but the risk of total crop failure is slight. In the dryland areas farmers risk a total crop loss due to low rainfall and high inputs can mean high losses.
Low cost production methods are good for farmers' profits but bad for corporate sales of machinery, fertilisers and other farm inputs.
Low cost farming is not on the research agenda which is hardly surprising as so much agricultural research is funded from the corporate sector. Agricultural research is aimed at higher yields not lower costs. Little account is taken of risk. A quick trawl through ICARDA reports shows they have never conducted an experiment aimed at lowering costs. However ACSAD has made a nod in that direction with an experiment on shallow cultivation but it was only a nod. (El Akhrass et al 1988)
The story of shallow cultivation provides a good example of the research establishment's failure to understand the cost of production. Deep ploughing is one of the more deleterious colonial inheritances in West Asia and North Africa. As an advisor to governments in the region I have been battling deep ploughing for forty years. At first the research scientists said that deep ploughing increased yields. This could be easily explained by their lack of understanding of shallow cultivation. They did not compare deep with shallow but good with bad.
I need to explain this assertion in a little more detail as few at this conference are farmers. I will use the analogy of driving cars on the right or the left. If one were to conduct an experiment to find out which was better, one would use a car designed to drive on the right for the right driving trial and one designed for the left for that trial. If you used a car designed to drive on the right for both, you would not be surprised when the results showed that driving on the right was better.
That is exactly what research centres in North Africa and West Asia did for decades. They used deep ploughs for deep ploughing and the same deep ploughs for shallow cultivation – something they were not designed to do. It was hardly surprising that they showed that deep ploughing was superior. Sometimes their lack of precise descriptions made it difficult to find out exactly what they had used but an inspection of the equipment on the centres showed that they had none designed for shallow cultivation..
Those who think I am exaggerating should look at my web site and the photos of their misguided attempts to use shallow cultivation.(Chatterton 2007) After a number of decades the research people mastered the techniques of shallow cultivation. Of course they could have asked a farmer but that was never considered. When they used the correct implements they found the yields from deep and shallow were not significantly different. At that point they dismissed the issue of depth of cultivation as unimportant. The fact that cultivation to a depth of 7 cm costs one third of the cost of cultivating to a depth of 20 cm never seemed to cross their minds. It uses one third the amount of tractor fuel. Just as important it takes only one third as much time. Researchers were obsessed with yield. Yield increases are the only measure of success for their experiments. They do not consider cost or time savings as important.
Had there been an experiment where a certain fixed amount of time was allocated either to a deep ploughing system or to one that uses shallow cultivation then I am sure that shallow cultivation would have produced considerably greater yields.

Drought policy

Not long after I became Minister of Agriculture the Premier of South Australia transferred the administration of drought assistance from the Department of Lands to my ministry. This was during a severe drought that had already caused severe hardship to farmers over a period of three years.
I inherited a drought policy that was both comprehensive and fragmented. It had been developed over many years with a strong input from science. It had elements from all the disciplines represented in agriculture. Animal nutrition, agronomy and water engineering were all represented as various elements of the policy package. As Minister I was able to change the emphasis from the physical inputs to farming to a policy designed to assist the farmers, their families and the rural communities. Instead of subsidised hay, grain, transport, water etc. the government provided concessional loans to enable farmers to decide their own priorities. I believed that farmers were better managers of the nexus between all these inputs to food production than the bureaucrats in Adelaide. The new policy was a success in South Australia and was adopted nationally.
This has important lessons for this conference. Farmers are already managing the nexus of energy and water as well as land, labour, capital and marketing yet where are they? Farmers develop their ideas from the particular to the general whereas the academic goes from the big picture to the even big picture. The farmer is suspicious of the theoretical model while the academic dismisses detail as trivial and farmers' experience as anecdotal. This different approach to knowledge makes communication at conferences such as these extremely difficult.
As well as the communication differences between farmers and academics there is a educational barrier to dialogue. Farmers are becoming better and better educated in the formal sense but they still retain their practical approach to problems which one underestimates at one's peril. I recall our first project in Libya during the 1970's where we despaired because local farmers would cut their medic pastures for hay instead of grazing them with sheep. The sheep returned more fertility to the soil and grazing was a more secure means of ensuring regeneration of the pasture. After three years we discovered that these Libyan farmers were doubling their feed production by selling their hay at a high price to a dairy project and then taking the money to a sheep project where they purchased subsidised grain. They had no idea of kilojoules of energy, starch equivalents or other measures of feed value used by animal nutritionalists but they had done their own sums to great effect. Of course this is a a piece of anecdotal evidence of farmers' expertise so I doubt whether it will carry much weight in academic circles.

More research failures

Part of the failure of agricultural research is its inability to tackle more than one variable at a
time. Multi-tasking is not on the agenda. To continue with the shallow cultivation story, the cost is less than deep ploughing but shallow cultivation has further implications that do not fit into standard research methodology which ignores time as a vital ingredient of farming.
In dryland farming areas early sowing is an advantage as crops have a longer period of growth with reasonable moisture levels. Leaving aside herbicides for a moment, early sown crops have poor weed control. The farmer must balance more cultivation (taking more time) that produces better weed control and therefore higher yields with the late sowing that comes from more time spent on further cultivations and thus reduced yields. Shallow cultivation not only costs less but is also faster. The farmer can cultivate more often to kill weeds and still sow early. (McPhee 1980)
Depth of cultivation, weed control and time of sowing are a nexus that farmers have been dealing with for many thousands of years before the word nexus was invented. Scientific research needs to catch up. Perhaps it should be the bridge between farming and policy that is more important if the potential for rainfed farming in drylands is to be achieved.

The Green Revolution

The so called Green Revolution has increased cereal production in the temperate zones with reliable rainfall and large parts of Asia with irrigation. Of course “green” had a different meaning when the phrase was coined in the 1960s. It certainly does not fit into the modern meaning of the word as the Green Revolution of the 1960s was heavily dependent on energy in the form of nitrogen fertiliser and other chemicals. There are many inputs in the Green Revolution package but water and nitrogen are probably the two most important. Without water, nitrogen fertiliser does not work. It is therefore no great surprise that the Green Revolution has been an abject failure in dryland farming zones.
That is a sweeping generalisation and the Green Revolution can work in dryland zones in years with good rainfall and on research centres. Research centres do not suffer the frustrations of real farmers in the zone and have chosen the best land and rainfall zones. In the case of ICARDA they added a little supplementary irrigation to ensure that their work does not suffer from a lack of rainfall.
ICARDA has placed considerable focus on supplementary irrigation for dryland farms. (Dodge 2014) Their work has shown impressive yield increases for cereals and excellent returns to water. Like so much research data it is open to various interpretations. Supplementary irrigation works in terms of increasing yields compared to the present farming system but is this the success of irrigation or the failure of the current system? Returns to water maybe excellent but that does not automatically translate into good returns to capital or other inputs.
The whole debate is somewhat academic as one has to ask where does the extra water come from? The general consensus seems to be that less water will be available for irrigation in WANA not more. Underground supplies are being exploited beyond their sustainable yield and more water is being diverted to domestic and industrial uses. Some countries in the WANA region have become concerned about the environmental impact of increased irrigation. For example Lake Urmia in north west Iran is only 15 to 20% full because the rivers that feed the lake have been diverted for irrigation.
The farmers I worked with in the WANA region struggled with inadequate supplies of domestic water. We had difficulties in Algeria in finding enough water for spraying crops with herbicides. Herbicides are diluted with hundreds of litres of water whereas millions of litres are needed for supplementary irrigation on just one hectare.
The emphasis on supplementary irrigation comes from a mistaken belief that water is the limiting factor for plant growth. Most contributors to this conference have assumed without question that water scarcity is that factor. They are after all water experts and they have an interest in water productivity.

Water not a limiting factor

I realise that I am in a minority of two today in suggesting that water is not scarce in dryland farming in WANA.
If we compare like for like in terms of rainfall, seasonality, temperature and soil between the southern Mediterranean region of Australia (principally the Australian states of South Australia and Western Australia) and WANA we see quite clearly that cereal yields are double and livestock from pasture is four time greater in Australia. (Chatterton 2012) In fact the difference may be much greater given the large contribution made to animal nutrition in WANA from imported grain. It is not a lack of rainfall but a failed farming system that limits production from dryland farming in WANA.
The potential for such substantial productivity increases in WANA are not based on theoretical models or laboratory experiments but yields achieved by ordinary farmers in Australia and Libya. If we examine the historical record we find that in the 1920s and 1930s productivity on Australian farms was equal or even less than the productivity in WANA. Australian farmers were at that stage using similar farming systems. From the 1940s onwards, and during the 1950s wool boom in particular, the pasture revolution began to accelerate. The gap between Australian and WANA productivity developed and continues to widen even today.
We do not know the limits to output from a given amount of rainfall but we do know that the WANA region has not begun to reach them. So much more productivity is possible within the present rainfall using the existing technology from real farms in Australia. One cannot claim that rainfall is the limiting factor for plant growth.

The failure of nitrogen

The reasons for the failure of nitrogen in dryland farming zones with less than 500 mm is well recognised scientifically. Nitrogen fertiliser increases the number of tillers of the cereal plant. These tillers grow into seed heads and the yield is increased. If the spring is dry, the cereal grains in the heads do not fill. The crop with more heads suffers more because of inter-plant competition and in extreme cases the yield of a fertilised crop can fall below the unfertilised one.
Nitrogen fertiliser is so deeply embedded into the training of every agricultural scientist that they cannot contemplate the idea of using other means of fertilising the cereal crop. They have instead researched alternative application methods in order to reduce the risk of crop failure. These involve smaller and more frequent applications of nitrogen (more costly for the farmer) based on testing the leaves of the crop using Near Infra Red meters. This technology has an application on broad acre farms in Australia but is too costly and complex for the small and medium sized farms of Morocco.
Even if chemical nitrogen could be made to work in dryland zones, one needs to ask why should we bother? Nitrous oxides are released from the soil when chemical nitrogen is applied. These oxides are 310 times more polluting as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.(Melchett 2007)
This conference is concerned with the energy used in food production but the real problem is the greenhouse gases produced from burning carbon. Much less is said about the greenhouse gases produced from the breakdown of nitrogen fertiliser. The carbon based energy resources of the world are enormous but to utilise them would increase the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by a catastrophic amount. Nitrous oxide release is a particularly serious problem for dryland areas. It is not possible to say a fixed amount is lost to the atmosphere. It depends on the amount of nitrogen fertiliser applied, the temperature and moisture content of the soil. Higher temperatures and low moisture levels as found in dryland areas lead to greater releases.
The failure of nitrogen to increase yields in dryland farming zones has been to blame the farmers for not taking more risks. It is arrogance in the extreme for people with secure government salaries to lecture farmers on risk. Farmers, particularly small farmers, are risking their families' wellbeing every year and do not need to be told to take more risk.


Sheep have the potential to provide farmers in the WANA region with an excellent income.(Chatterton and Chatterton 1996) Like most facts in farming this is a relative statement. Sheep provide a good income for small and medium sized farms while cereals provide a poor one. These farms have family labour available with a low or zero opportunity cost for shepherding. Almost all small farms have a few sheep – perhaps 10 or 20. The generally recognised upper limit of flock size for one shepherd to handle is in the order of 200 sheep. If these small flocks are expanded three or four times there are no extra shepherding costs as they are still well below the 200 sheep limit.
The alternative land use is often cereals which are expensive to produce on a small scale. Farmers with small areas of land cannot justify buying their own machinery for cultivation, seeding, spraying and harvesting. They are forced to employ contractors. The contractor comes with his own labour. The small farmer with a surplus of labour is employing more labour while he or she stands and watches.
The globalisation of cereal markets has put these small farmers in direct competition with the subsidised farms of the US and Europe and the highly mechanised farms of Australia and Canada. They cannot compete. The globalised markets have also decoupled the price of grain from local supplies. When markets were local farmers received higher prices when drought caused yields to drop. It was a form of drought compensation that no longer exists. The price of grain is still variable but bears no relationship to local conditions.
Sheep meat is expensive and, if the prices are translated into purchasing power parity, sheep meat in the WANA region is the most expensive in the world. What is bad news for consumers is good news for farmers. Farmers in this region can make an income comparable with the average national income if they have about 50 sheep. In Australia a farmer needs 1500 sheep to reach the average national income. (Boutonnet, J-P 1989) The fresh sheep meat market has other advantages. It has not yet been captured by Cargill and the speculators on the Chicago exchange and, unlike wheat, farmers do not have to compete against the subsidies of Europe and USA. Morocco is beyond the range of Australian live sheep exports, besides Australian Merino wethers are poor meat sheep and cannot compete with local breeds.
The catch, and there is always a catch in farming, is the high price of feed. Of course there is an alternative. That is low cost pasture.

Pasture in WANA

Pasture has been the the missing link in the development of dryland farming in West Asia and North Africa. This almost total neglect of pasture has a cultural and institutional basis. FAO abolished its pasture section decades ago in spite of the fact that about two thirds of the land used for food and fibre production in the world is pasture. ICARDA has lost interest in pastures except in the rangeland (Dodge 2014) where ICARDA is doing valuable work in reviving the old pitting machines of the 1960s and 1970s in a new incarnation as the Vallerani plough. Hopefully they will expand this work into the more important question of what to sow in the pits. However the rangeland does not have the pasture potential of the fallow in the cereal zone or the parcour in both the cereal and high rainfall zones.
Pastures went out of fashion in Europe and North America as their farmers became hooked on feedlots. These were developed to cope with the grain mountains produced by high levels of subsidy. Many scientists from the WANA region go north to train and absorb this culture of neglect. In Algeria for example hundreds of Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Revolution staff did their post graduate training in sub arctic regions of Russia and Sweden and exactly three did theirs in dryland regions of Australia with a Mediterranean climate. One of those three is now working with olives not pasture.
The agricultural institutions in WANA have reflected the low priority given to pastures. With the notable exception of Tunisia with its Office de l'elevage et des paturages (Livestock and pastures) no other Ministry in the region has given pastures any status. Pastures if they exist at all are buried in the Plant Production Division and have a very lowly status compared to the cereals. There is rarely any linkage between the pasture section buried in agronomy and the livestock division. When funds and aid projects are distributed they stand little chance of gaining any attention.
Of course there are exceptions to this long story of neglect. Algeria in the late 1970s and 1980s had a extensive program to grow vetch pastures for livestock (Notes 1978). This program which established hundreds of thousands of hectares of vetch was another example to science crossing the bridge into policy without bringing farming with it.
Experimental work showed that vetch and medic produced almost identical live weight gains in lambs grazed on these two alternative pastures. The big difference that the scientists failed to notice was the cost and the time. Vetch had to be seeded into a prepared seedbed every season while medic regenerated at no cost to the farmers from seed in the ground produced in previous years. In addition to the cost of seed and seeding the vetch, the farmers had to find the time. They had to sow the vetch in autumn when they needed to give priority to sowing their cereals. Often the vetch was sown late and therefore was not as productive as the medic which regenerated naturally from reserves of seed already in the ground. Of course time and cost constraint do not exist on research centres.
The vetch program only thrived with strong government incentives and when these faded so did the vetch.

The pasture revolution.

Amos Howard, a farmer in the Adelaide Hills, started the pasture revolution in the 1880s that led to the huge number of sheep in the dryland areas of Australia. He identified one of the self regenerating legumes that produce low cost, abundant pastures in the Mediterranean, dryland farming regions of the world. It was called the “sub and super” revolution based on subterranean clover and super phosphate fertiliser. We have now moved on from subterranean clover to a vast range of annual legumes of which the medic group is best suited to Morocco. These self regenerating pasture legumes are native to the WANA region and not to Australia. While the subterranean clover identified by Howard was introduced accidentally as a contamination of cereal seeds probably from Algeria, other cultivars of clovers and medics have been deliberately collected from the WANA region and southern Europe.
One hundred and thirty years after Amos Howard's pioneering work, (FAO 1953) the benefits of these cheap and abundant pastures have not reach the farmers of West Asia and North Africa. It beggars belief that the vast wealth of the development industry has been unable to organise the transfer of this knowledge to farmers.
The first stage was a success. They did manage to demonstrate the agronomy. Cheap and abundant medic pastures were established in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco. Jordan, Syria and northern Iraq. Sheep thrived on them. Good cereal crops were grown with the increased fertility of the soil. They could not get the technology off the demonstrations onto real farms in spite of the clamouring of farmers to be involved.
The only exception was Libya where many hundreds of farmers adopted the medic system and increased their farm profits substantially.
There were many reasons for this failure, such as FAO's decision to abolish its pasture section completely, but overall the most important has been a deep seated contempt for farmer knowledge among the agricultural technocrats. They did not need to look or learn from the Australian farming experience. They could read the research papers and do it all on their own. The fact they failed time and again did not seem to awaken in them any desire to try a different approach. When Libya succeeded with a farmer-based approach they dismissed it as extravagant yet nothing could be more extravagant than their litany of failures.
One could not conceive of a more extravagant project than the one funded by FAO in Algeria. (Golusic 1979) Five million dollars produced thousands of hectares of medic pasture but that pasture was transformed into only one working farm where the rotation of medic and cereals continued to regenerate year after year. It was a marvellous farm with indicators of cereal yields and livestock output that comfortably exceeded those for the irrigated farms nearby and at a lower cost of production. (Chatterton 1998) The FAO experience in Algeria was perhaps the most blatant example of the disregard for farmer knowledge. When the project was planned the ability to speak French was given priority over farming expertise. That may not seem an unreasonable demand as Algeria, particularly at that time, was a Francophone country but as Australians are notoriously monolingual it excluded them completely from the project team. The team that went to Algeria were world experts in pastures and cereals who had never been to Australia and had never seen the medic-cereal system in operation as a whole. They managed to sow the pastures but failed completely to understand grazing management or the cultivation of the ground for the cereal crop. The employment of a few Australian farmers, even if they did not speak French, would have solved these problems immediately as they did in Libya.

Here in Morocco there was a medic pasture program in the 1980s sponsored by GTZ. (Jaritz and Amine 1989) They started with a great success. Australian farmers were employed to establish tens of thousands of hectares of productive pasture. Then the Moroccan farmers were left on their own. There was no follow up training by the Australians on how to manage the pastures. No Moroccans were sent to Australia to learn first hand how the system worked. By that stage FAO had learnt from its previous mistakes and produced written material and audio visual training kits on the medic-cereal rotations but these were not distributed in Morocco.
At the same time a more lavish, USAID funded, program was launched to encourage farmers to plough more deeply for the cereal crop. The fastest way to destroy a legume pasture in rotation with cereals is to plough it deep. It was little wonder that medic failed completely.
Later IFAD tried again with medic pastures on the Abda plains, inland from Safi, but again initial success with pasture establishment was not followed by an advisory program, written material or shallow cultivation.
Morocco began its medic program later that other countries in the WANA region but did not learn from their successes and failures.

Cereal production

Legume pastures also provide fertility for cereal crops. The organic nitrogen produced from the break down of legume residues is released slowly and there are no recorded examples of negative yield responses in cereals unlike chemical nitrogen fertilisers. Legume nitrogen also produces the one tonne advantage. The science behind the one tonne advantage is not completely understood but trials at Erbil in Iraq (APDP 1982) and many other places have shown that cereal yields are one tonne per hectare higher than one would expect from just the nitrogen provided by the legumes. Whether this is due a break in the disease cycle or improved soil structure or some other factor such as the hydrogen released by the rhizobium has not been identified with certainty but the one tonne effect is real. A one tonne advantage may not seem a great deal to people used to European or US cereal yields but in WANA it usually represents more than a 50% increase in yield.
This nitrogen and organic matter provided by the legume pasture is total free for the farmer. It comes as a by product of grazing the pasture. The pasture on small farms is as profitable as cereals (often more so) so the farmers have no opportunity costs when they use a legume – cereal rotation.

The Zaghouan rotation

Legume pastures based on medic and cereals have been put together in the Zaghouan rotation in central Tunisia. Small farmers using this rotation are able to increase sheep production by five time, double cereal yields and still reduce production costs by about 70%.
The Zaghouan rotation was designed to reduce innovation overload. The classic medic-cereal rotation as practised in Australia requires the farmer to sow an unfamiliar small medic seed, graze the medic pasture in a new way and adopt new techniques for seedbed preparation and sowing for the cereals. Failure at any one stage can result in failure of the whole system as FAO demonstrated in Algeria. The Zaghouan rotation has been adapted from the classic medic-cereal rotation to allow farmers in WANA to use their existing machinery and to make the other changes more gradually.
The Zaghouan rotation is great news for farmers but would cause consternation in the board rooms of John Deere or Dupont if they had ever heard of it. The Zaghouan rotation (Chatterton 2013) is for farmers so it has remained outside agricultural academia. It is supported by sound experimental evidence from the Waite Institute and ICARDA but is is still a farmer oriented rotation. The original idea of a medic rotation was developed by farmers in Australia not scientists. The Zaghouan is barely know in Tunisia and unheard of elsewhere in the region.
The Zaghouan rotation is aimed at making money for small and medium sized farmers. It will reduce the cost of production for cereals by eliminating nitrogen fertiliser. It will increase livestock production from low cost pastures. As the increase comes from pasture it will also reduce the national dependence on imported animal feedstuffs but this was not the original intention. The rotation was developed to produce profits for farmers not to meet national goals. It has been ignored in academic and policy forums.

Impact on irrigation

The failure of dryland farming in West Asia and North Africa has implications for irrigated farming. I have already mentioned the farm at El Khemis in Algeria which was the sole survivor of FAO's $5 million project to introduce medic. This farm was a great success but the conclusion of the agricultural technocrats in Rome and Algiers was that the medic project had failed, dryland farming was a lost cause and irrigation was the way forward. The success of the El Khemis farm was based on the talents of an exceptional farm manager. He made the system work in spite of a total lack of support from the technocrats. The farm was not used as a model for other farms in spite of the fact that it was more productive than the irrigated farms established nearby and had a much lower cost of production. It is hard to understand why this should be the case but I suspect that the bureaucracy was embarrassed that a farmer had achieved something that they could not.
Unfortunately the Algerian failure can be transferred with minor variations to many other countries in the region. A great many resources have gone into irrigation whereas dryland farming would have been a better investment. Rather than confront their failure with dryland farming the agricultural establishment has blamed the low productivity on a lack of rainfall. They have established in their own minds that dryland farming is a lost cause. Of course they are confirmed in this belief by their training in northern temperate or sub arctic regions and by the procession of advisers from the temperate zones. Even if the scholarships to Australia are too few for them to study there, it is a great pity that they do not at least visit the Mediterranean zones of Australia to see what can be achieved in terms of pasture and livestock production.


I wish I could say something positive about the future of dryland farming in WANA.
The major barrier to change is the tired old mantra that water scarcity is the key limiting factor in plant production. While production levels remain at about one third of their potential it is obvious that a lack of rainfall is not the limiting factor in dryland farming. The key factor limiting production is a failed farming system. If the discredited mantra of lack of water could be buried in the graveyard of redundant ideas it would be possible to make real progress with dryland farming in WANA.
The Zaghouan rotations is a low cost, sustainable dryland farming system. It is ready and waiting but the total lack of interest in farmers' ideas by the research establishment, the development industry and the corporate sector means its progress is slow.
Perhaps the farmers in WANA can by pass these road blocks to progress as farmers did in Australia but I am not optimistic.


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