Opinion column

Atacama Desert: A laboratory for the future of agriculture

Dominique Chauveau, Head of FIA Strategy Unit

"Extreme remedies are very appropriate for extreme diseases." This phrase that Hippocrates coined in the XNUMXth century BC becomes valid in the face of the water crisis we face today. Drought not only represents an adaptation challenge for our agriculture, but also for our way of doing and thinking. It seems that we need to reach the limit to stop, reflect and take action on them.

Chile is known in the world for its agri-food wealth, a kind of "garden of Eden" that, as a result of its geography, knowledge and work, has allowed us to achieve competitive productive results. However, climate change has come to break the biological balance in which we have lived and our territory is being challenged by its dependence on thermal conditions, CO2 concentration and rainfall regime.

Faced with this already installed imbalance, as a country we should do at least three things: learn from the past (to understand why the balance was lost and, with that, not repeat the same mistakes), act in the present (to mitigate and/or adapt to the new balance in the installation process) and imagine the future (to have a “where” to go).

Perhaps it has been a product of our conjunctural way of thinking and acting, that we did not recognize, in time, the Atacama desert as a space of opportunities (and not of restrictions) for our agriculture. Viewing the north as an agricultural asset, as a natural laboratory, is related to something that CONICYT (now ANID) had been saying for some years now.

Aguilera and Larraín (2018) point out that natural laboratories are a singularity or environmental anomaly that attracts the attention of world science and, when it occurs in emerging countries like ours, provides comparative advantages that are not replicable in other places or contexts.

As the Foundation for Agrarian Innovation (FIA) and in alliance with our Regional Secretariats of Agriculture of Tarapacá and Antofagasta, we recognized this opportunity and transformed it into the Roadmap of the Natural Laboratory for Agriculture in the Desert. Roadmap that, working in partnership with CORFO and Transforma Alimentos, became the starting point for a series of actions aimed at promoting and learning from agriculture adapted to extreme conditions.

To date, we are already executing the first actions and, in addition, we are proud to see how the National Innovation System is aligning itself under a common concept to jointly achieve this greater purpose. Thus, for example, the Corfo initiative called "Technological development program for agriculture in arid zones" is already active, promoting a portfolio of projects that seek to comprehensively and collaboratively address the main gaps in the sector to achieve its economic consolidation. This initiative considers a budget of $4.000 million and will be executed by a consortium of important public/private actors. In addition, another Corfo initiative called PTI “Sustainable agriculture and food with added value in the desert of the Antofagasta region” is planned, which considers the execution of twelve investment initiatives that will mobilize resources for more than $4.000 million between 2021 and 2027.

As can be seen, what started as a local reflection is today mobilizing efforts at the macro-zonal level. However, he did not stop thinking about "how did we not see it before". This is an example that when the balance is broken, we should not only act in the present and from the moment, but also systematically learn from the past and disciplinedly imagine the future so, why not, look at our desert as if it were a garden of the Eden.

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