BEIRUT—Food security is a long-neglected area of academic study in the Middle East, despite the urgency of the issue.
“Food security” is the term that researchers began using in the late 1990s as they shifted their focus from stopping famines to studying the long-term ability of families or countries to have an adequate food supply. Interest in the field increased after the 2008 global spike in food prices, due to a variety of factors ranging from changing diets to rising energy costs.
Over the past few years both research and teaching about food security have grown—slowly—in the Arab world.
The Arab Forum for Environment and Development highlighted the importance of region-specific food security research and education when it focused on the subject for its seventh annual report on the state of the region’s environment. The report, published last November, emphasized the need for more efficient agriculture and water management.
“Food security is of great concern to Arab countries,” the report said. “They [Arab countries] have been pursuing a target of higher food self-sufficiency rate, but achieving this goal remained beyond reach.”
The report points out that several Arab countries have limited cultivable land and scarce water resources.
“The few countries that do have cultivable land have had very modest or even absent funding as well as poor management,” says an agricultural engineer, Pierre Bejjani “A case in point is Lebanon. The country had reams of green, fertile land, but irresponsible and ill-informed management has, over the years, reduced this land to a few scattered patches—which often end up serving as sites for villas in the mountains and private chalets close to the coastal region.”
The dean of the American University of Beirut’s agricultural and food services faculty, Nahla Hwalla, agrees. “Lebanon is seriously insecure because we import about 85 percent of our food,” she says.
But a high proportion of food imports alone doesn’t mean a country is “food insecure,” says Clemens Breisinger, who leads the Middle East and North Africa team at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
“We consider countries to be food secure if they can either produce enough food for themselves or if they are able to export enough goods or services to comfortably afford importing food,” he explains. Most Gulf States are therefore considered food secure, says Breisinger, because their oil exports easily cover the cost of their food imports.
Even though Breisinger’s definition of a food-secure nation would include the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, that doesn’t mean their governments take a relaxed stance—they still feel very uneasy about importing vast quantities of food, he says.
In a similar way that Western countries dislike relying on Russia or the Arab world for oil and gas, Arab countries feel insecure relying on other countries for food. “Where European politicians talk about energy dependence, Arab States talk about food dependence,” says Breisinger.
Growing food, of course, depends on water, which is in short supply in some Arab countries. The Arab Forum report says Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Palestine, Jordan, Oman and Djibouti have particularly scarce water. Only Mauritania, Iraq and Somalia have adequate levels of renewable water resources, such as rivers or springs. In Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen such water resources are categorized as “exceptionally scarce.”
Solutions to the Arab world’s agricultural challenges should revolve around harmonizing agricultural-development strategies and programs among Arab countries, the report says. This includes boosting crop and water productivity, improving water-use efficiency, reducing post-harvest and other losses, and promoting the use of treated wastewater for irrigation.
Whatever the solutions for Arab countries may be, Hwalla says the first step is for universities to start food-security programs to produce homegrown food security experts. “I know governments are interested in the issue and so they are consulting foreign experts,” she says, “But eventually strategies have to be implemented, so we need experts in our own countries.”
In 2011, Jane Harrigan, political economist and professor of economics at SOAS, University of London, presented a lecture at the American University of Beirut called “The Economics of Food Security in Lebanon” that revealed the findings of her research in the country. Her work zoomed in on the 2008 spike in global food prices and its effects on Lebanon at the macro level. According to Harrigan, in most years, around 90 percent of Lebanon’s consumption of cereal is met through imports.
Many Arab universities have strong programs in agricultural science, but the American University of Beirut has just begun a food security program. Six students signed up for the diploma course, which will start next semester; the master’s degree course is expected to begin next January.
“I don’t think any other university in the region has a program on food security,” says the American University of Beirut dean, Nahla Hwalla.
The Arab region is the largest cereal importer in the world, according to the Arab Forum report, surpassing even Asia with its much larger population. The region’s food imports are estimated to reach $115 billion by 2020. A global swing in food prices could cause a regional crisis. Only human resources—researchers—can ultimately improve the region’s food security and prevent such a crisis, notes the report.