How can Arabs achieve food security?
The eradication of hunger was the main concern of the Arab Ministers of Agriculture, who met in Rome at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Regional Conference for the Near East. Yet, apart from expressing their sadness at the decline of food production and security, the ministers failed to indicate what their countries could do to address this deteriorating situation.
In their closing statement, the ministers expressed concern over the decline in food security levels and worsening malnutrition in the region, putting the blame on continued wars and conflicts, as well as climate change and water scarcity. They looked for external aid, calling on international organizations to increase their contributions, through technical and financial support, to address the worsening conditions.
It is true that the region suffers from water scarcity, exacerbated by the effects of wars and climate change. However, what the ministerial statement failed to mention was that the main cause of the problem is the mismanagement of resources, namely inefficiency and poor productivity. Viable solutions should start within the countries, through adequate policies and better management. Only then will external support be invested in productive sustainable projects, instead of being wasted on transient assistance.
The Rome Declaration’s strong recognition of the effects of climate change on food production reflects a significant positive change. I recall that, when the Arab Forum for Environment and Development issued its report on “The Impact of Climate Change on Arab Countries” in 2009, its results were met with suspicion and resentment. Some considered them exaggerated in order to raise fears, although scientific facts proved that Arab countries are among the most affected by climate change, particularly in the areas of diminishing freshwater, drought, rising sea levels and groundwater salinity, all of which hit food production.
Others, at the time, believed that AFED’s calling upon Arab countries to contribute to international endeavors to tackle climate change, including enhancing energy efficiency and expanding renewable energy to reduce emissions, was a conspiracy against oil exporting countries. So the ministers’ clear acknowledgment of the dire impacts of climate change is music to our ears. But it shouldn’t be allowed that officials use climate change selectively, as a pretext to justify their failure to develop policies based on rational resource management.
An example of poor management is that irrigation efficiency in 19 Arab countries is less than 46 percent. According to AFED reports, raising this figure to 70 percent would save 50 billion cubic meters of water per year. As it is estimated that the required irrigation per ton of grain is 1,500 cubic meters, the amount of water saved could be sufficient to produce more than 30 million tons of grain. This is about 50 percent of cereal imports, with a value exceeding $11.25 billion.
Producing more crops while using less water is an important option to enhance food security in countries where water is scarce. In addition to increasing irrigation efficiency, water productivity can be increased by allocating water to higher value crops. The amount of treated waste water also must be increased, from 48 percent currently to at least 90 percent, and then used for irrigation purposes.
While the recent regional FAO meeting stressed the need to increase food production and import food to meet needs, it did not give sufficient attention to changing consumption patterns. Switching food types is an effective way to improve food security. AFED has always called for the immediate replacement of agricultural products that require large quantities of water with alternative products that provide the same nutritional value and require less water. Rice farming in Egypt is a perfect example, as it will not be possible with the available water resources to continue to produce enough rice to feed the country’s growing population, which is expected to double from about 100 million today to more than 200 million in 50 years. A positive indication is that the Egyptian government has begun to recognize the problem. This year it embarked, for the first time, on reducing the land allocated for rice cultivation. Alternative products are yet to be introduced.
Producing more crops while using less water is an important option to enhance food security in countries where water is scarce
One possible model for changing food consumption patterns is to promote the production and consumption of fish and whole fiber-rich cereals, while reducing the consumption of processed cereals and red meat. Production of these has a negative impact on the environment, while their excessive consumption causes adverse health effects. Reports of the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development showed that fish production in the Arab region can be exponentially increased, boosting both food security and good health.
Yet there are those who consider it impossible to achieve reasonable levels of food self-sufficiency in the Arab region. While this might be true in many cases, AFED experts believe that Arab countries can realize high levels of self-sufficiency and food security, mainly by enhancing cooperation among Arab countries in food production, based on comparative advantages. Regional cooperation must happen in parallel with raising productivity, reducing waste and changing consumption patterns.
Improving this aspect of food security, which deals with self-sufficiency, requires an integrated and inclusive regional approach that recognizes the interrelationship between food, water and energy. It also requires a new model of agricultural sustainability based on economic, social and environmental considerations.
What is being proposed may seem unrealistic, and at best too optimistic, in a region that is passing through multiple calamities. However, after all wars and conflicts are done, people will still need enough resources to eat, drink and breathe. In order to achieve a good and sustainable quality of life for all, mechanisms must be adopted for regional economic integration and open-door Arab trade, where the free movement of agricultural products, goods, capital, people and technology will bring great benefits to all countries.
- Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development and Editor-in-Chief of “Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia” magazine (www.afedmag.com)