Farmers in Egypt today work the land around the Nile in exactly the same way their fathers did when Moses was hidden in the bulrushes, but Cyrus McKell hopes to help change that.
McKell, dean of the School of Natural Sciences at Weber State College, is an expert in arid-land agriculture, and has been a regular visitor to Egypt for the past 12 years. He recently returned from a two-week stay where he drafted initial reports for a botanical genetic engineering laboratory in Cairo, a process that could impact Utah's desert."They want plants that are more tolerant to drought and salt, and that are more productive," McKell said.
"Plants that are more tolerant to drought, more salt resistant and more productive also find use here," he noted.
Specifically, Egypt wants to genetically engineer potatoes that are disease free, tomatoes that are better able to resist salt, and a kind of oil-producing mustard plant that will grow year-round, he said.
The WSC scientist visited the country last year at the invitation of the Ministry of Agriculture with four other western scientists as part of a United Nations Development Program. His solo visit earlier this month was a follow up to begin developing the botanical facility, he said.
"I've consulted for Egypt and the U.N. for a long time and am acquainted with the agricultural problems there," he said.
Egypt is a land roughly the size of Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and Idaho combined, but because of large desert tracks only the land directly adjacent to the Nile and its delta, which is approximately the size of one-fourth of Utah, can be farmed, said McKell.
"Their rate of growth has outstripped their food supplies. When I started going to Egypt in 1978, the population there was 36 million. The total today is 53 million," he said.
Egypt imports most of its potatoes from Holland, but if it can produce its own, the country could save as much as $14 million a year in foreign trade, he noted.
It could also grow enough tomatoes to export, McKell added.
"Part of the need (in Egypt) is to change farmer's attitudes about the way they do things, to help them see things they do not normally understand," he said.
"It isn't just a matter of water, it's a matter of mind, adopting to new approaches."
McKell, who serves as chairman of the arid lands committee for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was recently appointed to the Utah Governor's Science Advisory Council. He hopes his new post will allow Utah farmers to benefit from his work in Egypt.
"I can see some reverse technology transfer taking place," he said.
But changing the way farmers do business is just as hard in Utah as it is on the Nile, he said. "Most farmers get their information by seeing. They're doubters, and I don't blame them. There's so much risk involved they need to see the results first, so it takes a little longer."