Farming systems in west Asia and north Africa have evolved to cope with the problems of highly variable and, frequently, chronically deficient rainfall. Cereals (mainly wheat and barley) are the dominant arable crops with food legumes (chickpea, lentil and faba bean) occupying only 5 to 10% of the area planted to cereals. Livestock is closely integrated into the farming system and crop production practices often reflect the importance of animals as a major source of income, particularly on the smaller farms. Soils of the region are predominantly calcareous, frequently phosphate deficient, and their depth and texture are important in determining the maximum amount of water that can be stored which, in turn, may determine the effective length of the growing season.
Rain falls mainly during the winter months so that crops must often rely on stored soil moisture when they are growing most rapidly. Analysis of equations relating crop growth and water use shows that there are three ways in which the ‘water use efficiency’ of dry matter production can be increased. First, the amount of dry matter produced per unit of water transpired might be increased; second, if the water supply is limited, the amount of water transpired might be increased relative to evaporation from the soil surface; and third, the total amount of water used might be increased to produce extra growth provided that this results in increased transpiration rather than simply increasing evaporation from the soil surface.
These three possible routes to increased crop growth are reviewed in relation to possible improvements in water management and crop genotypes in the Mediterranean environment. Scope for improving transpiration efficiency is limited although genotypic differences exist and may be useful in the future. More immediately, changes in crop management, such as applications of fertilizer, improved tillage and better weed control, will all increase the amount of water transpired. Application of mulches will also reduce evaporation from the soil surface but crop residues are usually eaten by livestock and are, therefore, often unavailable.
The barley/livestock farming system of west Asia is used as a case study to illustrate how the Fanning Systems Programme of ICARDA has developed on-farm research programmes of direct relevance to current farming systems. Research on experimental sites directed at improving water use efficiency has been developed into on-farm trials and into collaborative trials with the Syrian Soils Directorate.