My friend Peter Segger and I have just spent two days as guests of Helmy Abouleish at SEKEM, an inspiring biodynamic community project, which over the last 35 years has transformed thousands of acres of virgin desert into fertile soils, using only compost and water.

Through his work, Helmy has emerged as one of the current world leaders of the sustainable agriculture movement. One of his continuing and further prioritised commitments is to the International Association for Partnership (IAP). This comprises a group of successful entrepreneurs in sustainable and organic food businesses, whose motive for forming the IAP was a sense of mutual obligation to devote time and resources to addressing the social, cultural and spiritual dimensions of sustainability.

Members of the IAP meet annually at the SEKEM headquarters, south east of Cairo, in a region where the rainfall is insignificant and the ‘lone and level sands’ are close at hand.

It is hard to overstate the scale and diversity of the achievements at SEKEM. They started by purchasing a parcel of desert in 1975 and using only compost and Nile water, they transformed it into a verdant ‘oasis’. SEKEM’s headquarters now comprise of hundreds of acres of farmland, growing prolific crops. This includes a plant raising unit, livestock, dairy, a huge composting operation and processing units. At the headquarters, where around 2,000 people now live, SEKEM is in the process of establishing three outlying farm communities. We visited one of the three year old farms and witnessed what might be described as the ‘before and after’ of conversion of desert into farmland.

Before and after (in the distance)

Because there is no significant rainfall, the only way food can be produced in Egypt is through the use of Nile water. The country has an umbilical dependence on the 55 billion cubic meters of Nile water entering Egypt from Sudan. Forty billion cubic meters of this water is extracted during its passage through the country, leaving only fifteen billion cubic meters to enter the Mediterranean. When I asked Helmy how important this supply was, he said ‘it is a matter of life and death’, which gives rise to some rather disturbing thoughts about the consequences of any of the upstream countries deciding to increase their water extraction, or if they attempted to re-negotiate the agreement, made some 60 years ago, which established the current water allocation. Amazingly, the Egyptian government, which effectively ‘owns’ the Nile water, distributes it to farmers virtually free of charge. Energy is also heavily subsidised (a litre of petrol sells for 22 euro cents). In both cases the subsidies result in profligate and inefficient use.

The mode of desert transformation developed by SEKEM involves the application of large amounts of compost – 50 tonnes are applied in year one, 20 tonnes in year two, ten in year three and then lower ‘maintenance’ doses thereafter. The conversion of the Sinai lands would also not have been possible without Nile water, which travels 150 miles in an open channel, then under the Suez Canal. The land is irrigated and planted, either with perennials such as olive and orange groves, or vegetables and other food crops. By year three, the current stage of the Sinai farm development, the productivity of this converted desert is quite incredible.

This gives rise to a question and a discussion: is it possible for soils, once they have been primed with compost in this way to become not only self sufficient in maintaining their fertility, but for them actually to generate an annual surplus of biomass? In other words, if one calculated the annual input of compost and subtracted the exported biomass represented by the crop, could the system eventually not only be self sufficient but actually generate soil organic matter without ongoing applications of compost or any other non renewable eternal inputs? The significance of this question is enormous – if the answer is ‘yes’, then the SEKEM system has massive potential for wider application – it could even be a blueprint of the future of soil management in the whole of Africa. What is so unique and interesting about the SEKEM desert transformation is that in farming one normally inherits a parcel of land (as I did), farms it for a few decades then makes speculative guesses about whether one has improved soil fertility, not really knowing whether one is exaggerating ones achievements. But at SEKEM here it is in real time, before, during and after, with no distorting factors to get in the way. It is an absolute revelation and something I am so glad to have seen first hand.

From virgin desert to fertile crops

The outstanding key issue, relates to the source of the fertility priming compost. In the case of the Sinai project, the fertility building ‘pump’ is primed by compost produced back at SEKEM headquarters, driven the 150 kilometres from Cairo in fuel subsidised lorries. Helmy told me that much of it is now produced by the existing SEKEM farm from crop residues and other biological waste materials, but they also supplement this with thousands of tones of rice straw and other organic waste material from outside the system. I asked him how he would approach conversion of virgin desert in the absence of the availability of an outside input of compost and he said that although this was a huge advantage and speeded up the process, the same outcome could still be achieved, albeit more slowly, if they produced compost from irrigated desert soils without outside inputs.

So Helmy is confident that the key elements of the SEKEM system could be applied anywhere on earth! In order to convince others it is important to collect the data. Then we can address those who are of the opinion that feeding nine billion (the world’s peak population) will be impossible without the use of nitrogen and other non-renewable fertiliser inputs. SEKEM’s work is currently physically demonstrating a successful alternative approach.

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