Yemen’s hardy native flora can help fight climate change, provide food and create fuel [Archives:2008/1180/Health]

August 11 2008

Sarah Wolff
As most people know, Yemen is in danger of desertification; however, a few native plants are paving the way – literally – by offering new options for ethanol, in-country grain production and a financial boost.

Plants like mangrove and seagrasses tolerate salinated water and have been suggested for use both in preventing desertification and as possible biofuel sources that could enrich petrol-limited Yemen.

According to energy researcher Harry Valentine, such saline-resistant plants can be cultivated in desert areas near oceans, much like northern coastal Yemen and northern Oman. Valentine's research was published on the Energy Central Network, a web site devoted to both news and scholarly articles about energy.

Plants like these thrive on seawater by filtering out the salt, making them able to survive in desert areas located close to an ocean. Already known for its lush mangrove forests, Yemen could possibly expand them further for use in fighting desertification.

If planted near the ocean, along with other similar plants fed by salt water, these saline-tolerant plants would make sparse areas lush again with their own miniature ecosystems, according to Valentine, who cited a similar successful experiment with saline-tolerant plants in Kenya.

Other plants like seagrasses can be planted on the floor of the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf and then harvested for use as ethanol, a plant-based fuel made by fermenting bio-materials into energy. Biofuels typically are made from complex sugars and cellulose, with previous experiments having used corn, sugar cane and even grasses.

While converting sea plants into biofuel isn't what usually comes to mind when people think of ethanol, scientists are beginning to see their possibilities.

The well-known drought-resistant Arabidopsis thaliana, also known as thale cress, is another plant that could help Yemen fight desertification. While Arabidopsis thaliana isn't found in Yemen, scientists already have mapped its genomes in order to identify its drought-resistant properties and apply them to those plants that are grown here.

Arabidopsis thaliana already has been used to produce other crops such as drought-resistant rice and its secrets could be used to help prevent drought regarding Yemen's edible agriculture as well.

However, plenty of other plants in Yemen already have adapted themselves and have become drought-resistant over time, including several types of wheat. “Most Yemeni plants that grow in the wild are drought-resistant by nature,” explains Yemen's Minister of Water and Environment, Abdul-Rahman Al-Eryani, adding, “Even sorghum and millet [edible grains] have become drought-resistant in the wild.”

Perhaps if these new salt- and drought-tolerant varieties were planted more often, Yemen could accomplish President Ali Abdullah Saleh's goal of reducing the nation's dependence upon foreign grain imports, as it currently purchases 92 percent of its grain from Australia, the United States and Canada.

Yemen still is able to capitalize on its naturally drought-tolerant species that thrive here, such as aloe, juniper and prickly pear cacti, which can grow to enormous sizes. The country has 79 species of aloe alone and aloe vera – whose juice is used for everything from treating burns to being used as a natural laxative – grows prolifically in the wild.

According to folklore, aloe vera even lured Alexander the Great's troops to the island of Socotra to collect its miraculous sap. Al-Eryani says Yemen is losing out on a multi-billion dollar business by not exporting the precious succulent. “If properly promoted, it could be a significant crop,” he said, “It's a major crop everywhere except Yemen.”

Al-Eryani further pointed out that frankincense and myrrh, two other drought-resistant plants that are native to Yemen, also could help turn a profit, if planted properly. “Yemen is famous for these plants, so it could create a good market for the local population,” he noted.