Qassim UniversityQassim University’s applied research safeguards food security and livelihoods

Qassim University’s applied research safeguards food security and livelihoods

Collaboration helps researchers share agriculture solutions with the Middle East and globally

Known as the “food basket” of Saudi Arabia, the survival of Al-Qassim province depends on its agriculture. Crop and animal production drive the province’s economy and provide livelihoods and food security to millions of people in the kingdom and the Middle East. 

Practical scientific research is crucial to maintain the health and output of the province’s agricultural sector, say researchers at Qassim University. Research within its College of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine looks to find solutions to the diseases threatening local crops and animal herds, while academics push to share their knowledge with others in the Middle East and globally.

Camels and dates drive Al-Qassim province’s economy, says Professor Ahmed Ali, a professor of veterinary medicine at the university. “Camels are important as a source of meat and are also considered part of the Middle East’s cultural heritage,” says Ali, a camel fertility specialist.

There are about 1.6 million dromedary camels within the Arabian Peninsula, more than half of which are found in Saudi Arabia, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation.

However, camels suffer from diseases that threaten their fertility, and thus the livelihoods of herders, Ali says. One example is chlamydia, a bacterial infection that causes reproductive problems in camels. Qassim University’s veterinary hospital, the largest in the country, sees between 100 and 150 camels a day, and a third of the hospital’s camel cases are affected by the bacterial infection.

“Surgical treatment is limited, so we are searching for a vaccine to prevent the occurrence of the disease,” Ali says. In collaboration with researchers in Egypt, Oman, and Qatar, Qassim University is working to isolate the chlamydia microbe and develop a vaccine.

In another project, Ali and colleagues linked male camel infertility to heavy metal toxicity. Cadmium, a heavy metal, is often a by-product of petroleum extraction, and researchers found traces of the metal in male camels suffering from infertility. Ali, who has been with Qassim University for 15 years, says: “Working in camel infertility is like a chain; once we solve one problem in the chain, we move on to the next problem.”

‪Professor Fahad Alminderej, a chemist in the College of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, is also looking to solve a problem: how to make the most of Saudi Arabia’s abundance of dates.

More than 8 million date trees dot the landscape of Al-Qassim province. In the first quarter of 2021, Saudi Arabia exported 142,000 tonnes of dates, according to the Saudi Press Agency. 

“My project looks to use palms to create new products for the market that are useful for people,” Alminderej says.

Date vinegar, for example, is currently prohibitively expensive, and Alminderej is looking to develop a method to manufacture large quantities to enable its sale as a health food. The cellulose from the palm tree can also be used to make biofuel ethanol, and filters made from palm-derived nanoparticles can remove heavy metals from water. To realise these products, Alminderej is collaborating with colleagues in the university, as well as in Tunisia and Egypt. 

Meanwhile, Professor Ayman Omar, a plant pathologist, is working to develop microbes that promote the growth and yield of greenhouse crops, such as cucumber and tomatoes. Omar and colleagues are isolating growth-promoting bacteria and fungi from the local environment in order to develop products for farmers.

“These microbes save money, are safe for the environment” and mean farmers are not dependent on mineral fertilisers, he says. Like Ali and Alminderej, Omar is also collaborating with researchers in other countries to further his research, namely in India and Egypt.

He hopes to have products ready to offer to farmers in the next year, as well as two scientific papers detailing their results.

While Qassim University researchers actively work to publish scientific papers, the main goal is to help farmers at home and abroad, ensuring that their crops and animals remain healthy.

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