Psst, have you heard about WEFRAH?

By  MainGate Staff
Fall 2020/Winter 2021

You can’t spend much time with FAFS Dean Rabi H. Mohtar these days without hearing about the Water-Energy-Food-Renewable Resources-Health Nexus—or WEFRAH. What is WEFRAH? “It’s a platform where issues related to water, energy, food security, and health are addressed holistically,” explains Mohtar, “enabling us to better understand their complexities, reduce interdependencies, increase resilience, and promote ecosystems and human health and well-being.” It’s also an Arabic word that means “abundance” and ties in with Mohtar’s philosophy: abundance through synergy.

For too long, the issues at the heart of WEFRAH have been ignored or addressed by people working in silos. “I’ll give you an example,” says Mohtar. “The current business model for food production is tons per hectare. That’s the only number people look at. It does not account for inputs, the water and energy used, the environmental cost, and completely ignores the nutritional value of what is being produced.” Because of climate change and rising populations, it is expected that by 2050, the global demand for water, energy, and food will increase by 50 percent, 54 percent, and 75 percent respectively. “We simply can’t meet that demand if we carry on as we have been doing. We have to change how we manage our primary resources. There really is no alternative,” says Mohtar.

The urgency is especially acute in Lebanon, a country that imports 80 to 85 percent of its food and where over 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The reliance on food imports makes Lebanon vulnerable.

The solution, however, lies not in food self-sufficiency, but in being smart about what is produced in Lebanon and what is imported. “We need to embrace our geography, our climate, and our skills to achieve a healthier trade balance,” says Mohtar. “We need to get back to our roots―to the Mediterranean diet―which is healthy and environmentally friendly.”

To do this, Mohtar and his colleagues are developing a WEFRAH community that embraces all seven AUB faculties.

Under the WEFRAH umbrella, professors from a wide range of disciplines including agriculture, arts and design, big data, engineering, biological and physical sciences, anthropology, and public health are tackling critical issues, leveraging technology and expertise with extensive on-the-ground experience. Some researchers are developing machine-learning approaches for precision irrigation to reduce water and energy consumption in field irrigation. Another group of researchers is developing a system that uses restaurant food waste (as feed supplements) and fishpond water (for irrigation) to grow fish. The research for both of these projects and many others is being done at AREC, AUB’s 247-acre farm in the Beqaa Valley. “AREC is not just a place for research,” explains Mohtar. “It’s a place for community engagement and entrepreneurship for the entire university.”

AREC is also a place for experiential learning. FAFS, the Global Confederation of Higher Education Associations for Agricultural and Life Sciences (GCHERA), and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation are working with a global network of universities to promote the EARTH University model for experiential learning and community.

Since fall 2019, FAFS students have participated in the Global Design Team, capstone community projects developed with Texas A&M University and Purdue University on topics including pine nut harvesting, pesticide deployment control, and water sanitation. Students enrolled in the six undergraduate and 13 graduate degree programs being offered by the FAFS Departments of Agriculture, Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management, and Nutrition and Food Sciences are learning skills that will enable them
“to make a difference in the world.” Mohtar explains, “The issues we are addressing have an immediate impact on people’s lives and urgently need to be addressed not just in Lebanon but regionally and around the world.”

Various AUB centers such as the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service and the Nature Conservation Center use AREC as a training facility for farmers and Syrian refugees.

MSFEA faculty have established a green energy poultry house for research and training at AREC. It is also used for research and training by NGOs and international institutions such as the FAO, Caritas, the René Moawad Foundation, Beyond Association, and ICARDA.

Community engagement is at the core of FAFS. “Our faculty has a mission, similar to that of US land grant institutions, of serving the community, of working on issues that will improve people’s lives,” says Mohtar. Many of the faculty’s outreach activities are organized by the Environment and Sustainable Development Unit (ESDU), the engagement arm of FAFS. One recent initiative is the Women’s Economic Participation (WEP) project to empower and build capacity among aspiring women entrepreneurs by providing them with access to new knowledge, including technical, soft, and leadership skills, confidence, and mobility.

Although the situation in Lebanon and the region is dire—scary, even—there is some good news. Researchers are working with the World Bank Group, the FAO, ESCWA, and the Center for Mediterranean Integration to revitalize the agriculture sector and provide opportunities for digital agriculture in the Mashreq region. USAID’s Office of American Schools and Hospitals Abroad (USAID/ASHA) has awarded AUB-FAFS a grant related to water resource management research at AREC. Google is funding research on applying artificial intelligence to improve irrigation water management. Another project, being funded by the FAO, is studying evapotranspiration (how water is transferred from the land to the atmosphere by evaporation) in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. “There is enormous interest from investors and donors in issues related to food, water, nutrition, and environment,” says Mohtar. “I am optimistic. I see enormous opportunities.”