Reporting to you from Islamabad, Pakistan.
In this, my second report from Pakistan, I report of a day in the field. I have four visits done today, all within Punjab province and near the capital city of Islamabad.
Our visits began at the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, or PARC. This organization is similarly related to our own USDA Agriculture Research Service, or ARS. The chairman greeted us in his very large office with a complete wall of windows to the east. The bright morning sun filled our room and warmed us as we shed our jackets.
We talked science. And we talked about collaboration between PARC and USDA. In fact, in what I would find throughout the day was this welcomed comment. He began by saying he and his council are not interested in our checkbook, but in our knowledge. How refreshing.
The engagement continued to prioritize those challenges ahead that we might further engage. By this I mean, having the discourse and discussion for design ideas and projects that would benefit Pakistan farmers.
Again, refreshing that we had already decided who would be the beneficiaries of this collaborative effort.
In short, the topics include land reclamation of saline and sodic soils, soil fertility at the field level, and then irrigation water management. These are not surprising at all. In fact, we worked on these challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq, too.
The gist of our discussion centered on how to develop a comprehensive operational plan, sort of “how and when” do we put together inputs, both human and capital items, that help us accomplish certain objectives to reach the expected goal or outcome. This is what I get paid to help them do.
The chairmen next sent me to visit the director of the Agricultural Natural Resources Division. He supervises a large group of scientists and engineers, all working in the soil, water, environment and bio-energy fields.
He confirmed for me the critical areas of research here in Pakistan. They included the ones above, but in the context of flooded fields.
Many crop fields in southern Pakistan are still underwater, as the soils there are saturated with a perched water table and drainage is very slow.
The normal winter wheat planting time is end of November, and here we are one month past that, so in this part of Pakistan there is little wheat planted in the flood plain region of the Indus River.
The director is particularly interested in wheat and cotton research work. There are three summer crops grown here: sugar cane, rice and cotton. The primary winter crop, wheat, is a food staple and some of this crop (in bumper crop years) is exported, primarily to Afghanistan.
Some of this wheat is grown in the rain-fed regions, but much is grown in irrigated crop fields using supplemental water if rainfall does not meet crop water consumptive demand.
Our next stop was at a field station. At the National Agricultural Research Center (NARC), I found delightfully smart, enthused and engaged researchers working in these areas: soil taxonomy, soil fertility, soil salinity, irrigation water management, environmental research including carbon management (tillage and sequestration) and biogas generation from crop residue, organic byproducts and animal manures.
The director of the Land Resources Research Institute introduced a few of his scientists to me, and then we toured several laboratories. And to my delight, I found the laboratories modern, well-equipped and actively using instruments to obtain measurement data for further analyses.
Many workers were themselves working on master’s or doctorate programs just like we have at our own land grant universities.
I have mentioned ICARDA in my articles way back to my visit to Aleppo, Syria, in November of 2006. ICARDA is the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. Pakistan is part of this area, and its national office is here at the NARC. I will visit them another day.
But I was very pleased to see engagement with one of the premier international research centers, ICARDA, here in Pakistan. History has a role to play here, as Norman Borlaug, the famous agronomist and cereal plant breeder (Green Revolution), did some of his foundation rice breeding experiments here in Pakistan, and his base of operations in this part of south Asia was in fact Aleppo, Syria, at ICARDA.
My final visit of a very long day was with the scientists and engineers of the Water Resources Research Institute. The director guided me through several laboratories full of technicians evaluating water flow through soils.
Many sizes of soil columns, and in some cases entire monoliths, were brought into the laboratory. Water flow in both the saturated and unsaturated moisture condition was being investigated, as well as solute transfer both horizontally and vertically.
The engineers are particularly interested in field measurements of antecedent soil moisture, evapotranspiration, and then modeling crop water consumptive demand. The goal is, of course, fine-tuning irrigation applications with knowledge of volumes, rates, and timing (frequency) of water on a crop field.
They are focusing on drip and center pivot sprinkler irrigation, but know that most crop land here in Pakistan is leveled, bordered and flood irrigated.
One interesting five-year study showed a field-by-field experiment (loam soils) with the attempt in one to incorporate all wheat residue and in the other, remove it (the usual practice here in Pakistan) as a way to increase soil organic matter.
The field with crop residue incorporated was increased to 0.8 percent from 0.5 percent. In both fields, conventional tillage was used, which probably explains why the response was less than they hoped for.
Another area of research was heavy metal mitigation in soils receiving raw waste water from cities. This is an enormous problem; cities cannot afford expensive wastewater treatment facilities, so sewerage and storm water runoff is hauled directly to crop fields and land-applied or in some cases used to supply irrigation water volume on growing crops.
Unfortunately, many of the crops are high-value crops, the vegetables and specialty crops that directly enter the human food chain. The director and his staff are mandated to find answers for mitigating heavy metal movement into crops from soil root zones.
He did report to me that these metals largely remained in the surface soils of 45 to 60 cm depth and thus had not migrated into groundwater.
Not every day at an American embassy is like this. But when they happen, and especially when scientists from ten time zones away can now meet and engage face to face, well, we do elevate development to the realm of something good. For Pakistan, and for the United States as well. PD
USDA FAS Senior Agricultural Adviser