Preventing future food security crises in the Arab world
History repeats itself and, after more than a decade, food security is again at the top of the agenda of governments worldwide, calling to mind the food crisis of 2007-08. Agriculture, food systems and supply chains are facing multiple challenges: The COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, natural calamities caused by climate change, supply chain disruption and inflation have all exacerbated global food insecurity.
Many countries have been affected by the current food security crisis, and the increase in food prices threatens to destabilize political and social order. A good example of this is the collapse of the Sri Lankan government.
The looming food security crisis has not come as much of a surprise to Saudi Arabia. After the 2008 food crisis erupted, the country prepared to strengthen its food reserves by encouraging local farmers to harness the techniques of smart agriculture and by sourcing food internationally.
At the start of the pandemic, the abundance of food in Saudi Arabia’s local markets meant that citizens and residents did not feel any threat of food shortages. This was thanks to various government programs and initiatives, such as those addressing rural agricultural development and agricultural investment abroad, and to the encouragement given to farmers to plant locally and utilize the governmental programs and support offered to them. In fact, Saudi Arabia has achieved a high level of self-sufficiency in eggs, dairy produce, vegetables and fruit.
In 2019, the total production of dates was 1.5 million tons, a self-sufficiency rate of 125 percent, while vegetable production reached approximately 1.6 million tons, a self-sufficiency rate of 60 percent.
Potato production reached nearly 403,000 tons, making the Kingdom 92 percent self-sufficient in this sector. Fruit and citrus production stood at 650,000 tons, a 35 percent rate of self-sufficiency; this marked a significant increase compared to 2016, when production reached 266,000 tons (a 15 percent rate of self-sufficiency), according to the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture.
Saudi Arabia achieved a high rate of table egg production in 2019, with a production level of 315,000 tons and a self-sufficiency level of 116 percent, compared with 102 percent in 2016. The production of fresh milk and its derivatives stood at 2.4 million tons, achieving a self-sufficiency rate of 109 percent.
The fish production sector has also been surpassing its past performance: In 2020, it reached a production level of nearly 155,000 tons and achieved a 55 percent self-sufficiency rate, compared with 90,000 tons and 15 percent in 2016.
The most recent government food security initiative is its program to support the poultry industry in order to boost the self-sufficiency rate for poultry meat to 80 percent by 2025. The Kingdom’s rate of self-sufficiency in poultry meat production has already jumped from 45 percent in 2016 to 68 percent in 2022. A government investment of SR17 billion ($4.52 billion) between now and 2025 is intended to achieve a production capacity estimated at 1.3 million tons of broiler chickens annually. This will support national food security and provide jobs.
The war between Russia and Ukraine has affected many countries, including Saudi Arabia. World food prices are increasing, but Saudi Arabia’s reserves of strategic food crops are enabling it to weather the associated threat to food security.
Food security is of critical importance for any country and is vital for its sustainable development. Currently, the majority of the world’s wheat is produced in only a few countries, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
World food prices are increasing, but Saudi Arabia’s reserves of strategic food crops are enabling it to weather the associated threat to food security
Turki Faisal Al-Rasheed
China, the world’s largest wheat producer, has begun to allocate more of the wheat it produces to domestic consumption to help meet its rising food demand. China is the world’s largest consumer of wheat — in 2020/2021, the country accounted for approximately 19 percent of global wheat consumption.
The second-largest wheat producer is India. Like China, India allocates most of its wheat to domestic consumption because of significant food demand across the country.
Russia, the world’s third-largest wheat producer, is also the largest global exporter of wheat. It exported more than $7.3 billion-worth of wheat in 2021, accounting for about 13.1 percent of total wheat exports that year. Ukraine is the 10th-largest exporter of wheat.
The agreement between Russia and Ukraine to resume the export of grain despite the war between the two parties — under the auspices and guarantees of the UN and Turkey — represents a lifeline for many countries, including Arab nations, and for millions of poor people around the world. This is a crucial element in ending the current global food crisis: Russia and Ukraine currently form the backbone of the global systems for the production of grains, oils and fertilizers. It is sufficient to know that the agreement enables Ukraine to export 22 million tons of grain and other necessary agricultural products that were previously stuck in its Black Sea ports due to the war.
Proving the importance of this agreement are Europe’s statements welcoming it, despite Europe’s apparent hostility to Russia, its supply of weapons to the Ukrainians and even its demand for the agreement to be implemented faster.
What preoccupies Arabs now, with optimism increasing that the food security crisis is easing, is the importance of learning lessons from this crisis and the need to ensure Arab food security in the future.
I suggest the formation of an Arab committee of senior specialists officially charged with studying food supply factors and taking steps that would ensure Arab food security, especially in times of crisis. Everyone involved must realize that there is no Arab food security without the cooperation of all stakeholders.
A further recommendation is to invest in publicly listed companies (headquartered in the host countries) that own freehold agricultural land. The purchase of shares in Egypt’s Misr Fertilizers Production Company by the Saudi Public Investment Fund is a good example of an investment that provides a win-win situation for the host country and the investing country.
• Turki Faisal Al-Rasheed is adjunct professor at the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona. He is the author of “Agricultural Development Strategies: The Saudi Experience.”