Small Wheat Grains Swell Into Big Controversy
ASSIUT—In highly publicized experiments, Egyptian researchers say they may be able to double the country’s wheat production by squeezing two growing seasons into a year.
But in a country that takes its agriculture seriously, the experiments are proving extremely controversial.
Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat, according to government statistics, and the price of bread and other wheat food products are a key source of the Egyptian public’s complaints about the cost of living. So the new research is being closely watched by government officials and citizens alike.
Over four years in row and under different climatic conditions, scholars from the National Water Research Center’s Water Resource Management Department in Cairo conducted experiments to cultivate wheat twice rather than once a year.
“The technique of cultivating wheat twice a year depends on treating the wheat seeds before planting by cooling them for various periods of time,” said Ali Farag, who conceived of the experiments and is a researcher at the Water Resources Management Institute.
“This would reduce the time crops stay in the soil to three months rather than six,” Farag said. He added that such research is based on taking samples of wheat seeds, putting them in refrigerators, and exposing them to various degrees of coolness to identify the optimum temperature at which seeds can be saved. Seeds would then be taken out of refrigerators and cultivated in soil. Then researchers can follow up to see what the growth rate of the seeds is.
The research team’s efforts are part of the larger Egyptian government efforts to increase the country’s wheat production. The domestic consumption of wheat is about 17 million tons per year, but the country’s production did not exceed 9.6 million tons in 2015. The average Egyptian consumes 141.1 kilograms of wheat in a year.
In its experiments, the Water Resources Institute has been trying to speed up the growth of wheat. “We have noticed that the first wheat seedling was obtained after three days,” said Hisham Mustafa, the director of the Water Resources Institute. “This is considered a fast rate compared to the traditional cultivation method, in which the first seedling might take eight to ten days to appear on the surface of earth.”
He also explained that by calculating the various wheat growth periods, starting from branching to the elongation of stems, a wheat plant could be harvested within 90 days.
The normal cultivation period for wheat in Egypt starts in mid-November. So, instead of waiting till the plants’ seeds absorb water and are chilled by the soil, the refrigeration could subject them to changes in the carbohydrates around the wheat germ to turn it into an easy-to-absorb material to facilitate the access of nutrients. When refrigerated seeds are placed in the ground, they could be more prepared to grow than traditionally planted seeds. The refrigeration could speed up the first month-long stage after planting, in which the decomposition of carbohydrates and absorption of nutrition takes place.
“This experiment would allow raising wheat twice in the winter season due to the plant’s short period of growth,” said Farag. “If it would be generalized across the republic, it would lead to a change in Egypt’s crops production.”
But the idea of raising wheat twice a year faces severe criticism in Egypt. The Ministry of Agriculture’s Institute of Agricultural Research has issued a report attacking the experiment and calling it a threat to the future of Egypt’s wheat cultivation. The report also described the research as “unscientific” and the results “poor.” It said the experiments are not worth exhausting the soil and wasting the water.
“Promoting the experiment is still so early,” said Mohammed Suleiman Mohammed, the head of the Agricultural Research Institute and the head of the committee that issued the report. Although the plants may appear green and healthy, they do not produce the grains that people eat, the report found. Moreover, the humidity rate in the experiment, in general, does not go below 35 percent, something would make it impossible for harvest to take place in that time, according to the report.
Another critic, Nadir Nour Ed-Dein, a professor of agriculture and water at Cairo University, questions the amounts of produced wheat announced by the scholars. “Cooled wheat produces dwarfed corns,” he said. “I am not convinced by this experiment.”
According to Nour ed-Dein, an acre gives 10 erdibs (an Arabic measure of weight, with 10 erdibs equaling 1500 kg) using the artificial cooling method, while the normal cultivating method results in 20 erdibs (3000 kg), or almost double the production. “There is no benefit out of cultivating it twice a year to produce a harvest of the same amount as that of cultivating it traditionally once a year.”
“This method might be successful in Canada, the northern states of America, as well as Europe, but would not be suitable in Egypt’s hot weather,” Nour ed-Dein said
To settle the controversy, Abdel Moneim al-Banna, Egypt’s minister of agriculture, has formed a committee of agriculture professors from several different Egyptian universities to evaluate the research and produce a report on its pros and cons.
“We want to increase our wheat production, but we need to make sure that it will not adversely affect the soil and other crops,” the minister said in a press conference last week.