The Arava region is part of the Israeli desert, and home to the “Central & Northern Arava-Tamar R&D Center“. Arava-Tamar is a world leading agricultural research facility. Once a year the center opens its gates to visitors. So we headed to the desert to witness new developments in desert agriculture.
Arava Agriculture R&D
The Arava R&D center conducts trials and develops methods for breeding, strain development, and organic and hydroponic cultivation, as well as performing economic analyses.
An extreme desert climate characterizes the Arava region of southern Israel; strong insolation, high temperatures, low precipitation and high rates of evaporation. These harsh conditions help position the R&D center as a leading research facility in the field of desert agriculture.
The Challenges of Desert Agriculture
Many civilizations have attempted to grow food in arid areas over the years, with occasional success. Early techniques such as the fallow system- plowing the soil, yet leaving it unseeded for a growing season, as well as the later developed, tillage method- plowing the soil while keeping straw or residue from the previous growing season on top, are basic examples of harnessing the dryland’s hidden potential as fertile agricultural soil.
The underlying principle behind these methods is to enrich the soil with nutrients and maximize its moisture retention.
Cultivating Myrrh in the Desert
DryGair and Arava agronomist Shabtai Cohen walked us through several research trials researchers are conducting at the center these days.
The first trial is of the cultivation of myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), a tree mentioned several times in scripture as a fragrant perfume. The plant, native to east Africa, specifically Ethiopia and Somalia, is not cultivated or commercially produced in any form. Therefore, there is no established cultivation protocol, which is precisely the goal of Arava researchers.
Researchers describe the myrrh tree as a laboratory in and of itself. It is full of benefitial active materials, some of which have yet to be defined.
Though renowned for its fragrance, the scientific interest in this tree is rooted in its radiation defense mechanism. Growing in arid, high radiation regions, the myrrh internally manufactures an oil that protects it from the sun. In fact, a patent protected sunscreen is now being developed from it, providing up to 12 hours of radiation blocking. Myrrh oil can penetrate the skin epidermis and cancel out the damage normally inflicted on DNA by UV rays. The oil provides an active physiological defense, differentiating it from the physical defense of standard sunscreen materials.
The biggest problem of scaling of myrrh cultivation lies in its breeding, as getting branches to root is extremely difficult. But researchers at the Arava center have managed to successfully increase the rooting rate. Contrary to common agricultural practices, the myrrh actually roots more efficiently as the branches mature. Additionally, and just as counter-intuitive, rooting rates improve when the plant is placed in dense 20 cm intervals.
Currently, processing myrrh entails crushing the entire plant into a powder. Further processing turns the powder into a usable paste. The near future is likely to bring new processing techniques as well.
Irrigating Greenhouse Peppers
The second trial we visited was the cultivation of peppers, possibly the most popular crop in the Arava region. The brackish water and plentiful sunshine allow for early ripening of high quality produce.
The challenge researchers face is the uneven pace at which these pepper plants provide fruit. Peppers in the region normally provide around 3 kg of ripe peppers before exhausting themselves. After which there is a downtime in production, before new fruit grows.
According to researchers, strengthening the plants is necessary to maintain constant production. Larger root systems allow the plant to take in larger quantities of water and nutrients, the building blocks for any fruit. Researchers at the center are testing different methods to achieve this. One experiment involves removing flowers before the plant provides fruit, prompting the plant to turn its energy towards root expansion.
Studying the root systems is the one of the biggest problems researchers face, as they are not readily visible. The Arava researchers utilize two methods to deal with this problem. The first is a mini rhizotron, a small see-through pipe which penetrates the soil and lets researchers view the root system. But this method provides relatively imprecise results. The second method involves growing peppers in a soilless growing medium with exposed roots to be able to study them. Though growing without soil may also have an effect on the roots themselves.
Desert Agriculture May Be the Future of Food Production
We are currently in the midst of wide global shifts. These changes have a great impact on food production. Population growth is increasing the demand for produce, while climate change may inhibit the agricultural potential of the regions we currently rely on.
Growing food in arid regions may unlock the potential to utilize new regions in order to feed a growing global population. The Arava R&D center is at the cutting edge desert agriculture, developing and showcasing innovative methods to turn this goal into a reality.