Ismahane Elouafi was on her way to becoming a fighter pilot in the Moroccan army when the country decided to shelve plans for female captains. So she ended up at the agricultural university.
The military’s loss is a gain for the fight against world hunger as 48-year-old Elouafi is among those leading the search for edible plants able to survive climate change.
Based in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, where temperatures can exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122°F), Elouafi and her team are nurturing crops such as quinoa that could feed a hotter planet.
“Marginal environments are going to be the norm of tomorrow, so we’d better be ready for it and have solutions,” said Elouafi, director-general of the Dubai-based International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA).
The Arab Gulf’s punishing heat and salt-tainted earth are ideal for testing plants in what scientists call “marginal environments”.
These are lands where poor soil and scarce freshwater make farming extremely challenging.
Globally, around 1.7 billion people – or 1 in 5 people – live in marginal environments but that number could surge if temperatures rise further and cause water shortages.
In a dusty compound hemmed in by skyscrapers, Elouafi and a team of horticulturists are nurturing breeds of grass, date palms and vegetables that could feed heat-afflicted populations in the Middle East and other countries including Gambia, Ethiopia and Tajikistan.
Salicornia, or samphire, has emerged as a frontrunner.
The saline-tasting bright green stalks often served with seafood in trendy European restaurants, can thrive in dry, salty soil and be used as food for animals and biofuel.
“It is doable (to make these lands productive) but it requires investment in research and in science,” Elouafi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in her office, one of the few low-rise buildings in Dubai’s Academic City.
The Middle East is on the frontline of climate change. Food security is an acute concern, particularly for Gulf countries that rely on imports of staple grains from other nations that could themselves experience shortages.
In a bid to lessen their dependence on other economies, wealthy Arab countries have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in organisations like the ICBA.
In Qatar, botanists are hunting for breeds of grass able to withstand high temperatures on open-air football pitches when the country hosts the 2022 World Cup.
Growing up surrounded by books – her academic father once sacrificed funds for a family holiday to buy encyclopaedias from a door-to-door salesman – helped Elouafi when she had to switch from a military high school to study agriculture, she said.
A plant geneticist fluent in French, Spanish, English and Arabic, Elouafi is one of a handful of women leading agricultural science and research in the Arab world and is keen for more women to take the lead in the industry.
Every day, 2,000 hectares of land around the world are degraded by salt which severely reduces soil fertility, she said.
In addition, the United Nations says the equivalent of one soccer pitch of soil is eroded every five seconds, and more than 90% of all the Earth’s soils could be degraded by 2050.
“In a few years, if we don’t stop what we’re doing to planet earth, we would all be living in marginal environments,” Elouafi said.