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06/21/2023

In oases, recycling date palm residues to improve soil fertility

In the oases of North Africa, Tunisia, and Algeria, growing date palms is a major source of local production, but it is now threatened by a number of factors. Based on a participatory approach, the ISFERALDA project aims to recover palm residues and use them as new assets and tools to increase the resilience of crops to ongoing disruptions. An interview with Xavier Morvan, project coordinator and researcher at the University of Reims Champagne Ardenne.

How did the ISFERALDA project come about, and what were the challenges that led to its creation?

Xavier Morvan: First of all, there is the socio-economic background. In semi-arid and arid areas, and particularly in oases, date palm farms are most often small properties of just a few hectares, requiring high productivity to be profitable. Although it is traditionally intensive, it is still subsistence agriculture with low inputs and very low mechanisation. The ecosystems of these agrosystems are also affected by many factors that endanger their sustainability: the lack of surface water, soil and groundwater salinisation, low soil fertility, excessive soil use without significant return or rotation, and especially climate change, which may accelerate pest invasion and emerging diseases, and reduce water availability. Finally, date palm production leads to a large amount of agricultural waste - each tree produces approximately 10 palm fronds a year - that is little used today, but could become a major renewable, sustainable, and local resource.

Speaking of which, from waste to resource, how precisely are these agricultural residues used?

X.M: By following the principles of a circular economy. We want to study the conversion of local date palm residues into organic matter for improving infertile soils. To do so, we actively involved local farmers to develop farmhouse composting and pyrolysis methods for date palm residues. Pyrolysis involves burning biomass, in this case palm fronds, at high temperature without oxygen in order to reduce it to biochar. Applying these soil improvers will help improve the soil’s fertility and properties such as water retention, and should provide comparable or greater income for local farmers.

What results have you achieved so far?

X.M: The project began in 2021. There are still many experiments to be conducted or currently underway, in both the laboratory and the field, and the results we have achieved are still incomplete. However, we can draw from our analysis of the interviews we conducted with farmers. While few farmers are currently using date palm compost or biochar, around two-thirds are ready to use compost made from date palm residues, as long as the product is available in local markets in quantity and quality, on a permanent basis and at reasonable prices. The other third of farmers remains reluctant to use these products, but is willing to rethink their position if the results achieved are satisfactory. Another result is the increase of water retention in soils when we add organic soil improvers. This increase is even greater with sandy soils. For instance, adding 3% of biochar to soil with 85% sand helps increase the soil’s useful reserve by 78%, compared to unimproved soil.

How did you ensure that these project results are passed on to the stakeholders?

X.M: We conducted many communication campaigns - with farmers, date palm producers, farm advisors, policymakers, and the local population in general - through a website,
Projects messages on social networks, and scientific conferences at national and international congresses, in order for everyone to benefit from the results achieved by the project. We also hosted demonstration days at agricultural sites, and open days at research institutes and at the project’s partner company. The purpose was to obtain feedback from people in the field. Farmers were also consulted in realigning the project’s innovation process. For that matter, they are also involved throughout the process, from preparing and maintaining soil quality to crop harvesting.

How is transdisciplinarity, ranging from the human to the life sciences, fundamental to your project’s key issues?

X.M: Each consortium partner involved in the ISFERALDA project1 is crucial to achieving the objectives. This project is transdisciplinary because it addresses socioeconomic and scientific issues. The socio-economic aspect, based on surveys and cost-benefit analysis, is essential for farmers, because it helps identify the problems they are experiencing and the solutions currently being pursued, and determines the economic interest of producing and using the organic improver studied. Scientific issues are also essential, because they help generate reliable and thorough information, based on statistically significant results that can be transferred and disseminated to the relevant stakeholders. The scientific fields and expertise involved vary, including the study of soil organic matter, producing and characterising organic soil improvers (compost and biochar), soil physics, soil chemistry, and soil microbiology, agronomy, and plant physiology, among others. Combining these socio-economic and scientific aspects will help to understand the needs of farmers, to assess the economic interest of the agricultural practices being proposed, and to disseminate reliable and thorough scientific results in line with the needs of the relevant stakeholders.

 

The ISFERALDA project consortium brings together six research institutes, one technical institute and one company: URCA - GEGENAA University of Reims Champagne Ardenne - Study Group on Natural, Anthropogenic and Archaeological Environments and Geomaterials; UMKB - University Mohamed Khider of Biskra; IRA Arid Regions Institute of Medenine (IRESA) – University of Gabès; HAO-DEMETER Hellenic Agricultural Organization – DEMETER; INRAA National Institute of Algerian Agronomic Research; University of Batna Hadj Lakhder; ITDAS Technological Institute for the Development of Saharan Agriculture; and Palm Compost.

Last updated on 21 June 2023
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