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[Research Reports] Food Security in the Middle East and North Africa -- Common Regional Challenges and National Approaches to Food Supply

Yuko Ido (Research Fellow, The Japan Institute of International Affairs)
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'Middle East and Africa' Research Group #10
"Research Reports" are compiled by participants of research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs and are designed to disseminate in a timely fashion the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The Research Reports represent their authors' views. In addition to these Research Reports, individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

In 2020, in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic, food insecurity and crises became more serious worldwide. In October 2020, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its humanitarian assistance in conflict areas around the world. WFP Executive Director David Beasley said, "Food is the best vaccine." However, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya and other countries continue, there have been concerns of serious hunger even before the coronavirus outbreak. In addition to conflicts, the region is regarded as one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, which is considered to have been one of the factors in these conflicts. This short paper intends to offer an overview of the common challenges faced in pursuing food security in the MENA region and discuss their prospects.

Food Insecurity, Crisis and Common Challenges in the MENA Region

Food security as a concept refers to a multi-dimensional phenomenon, including challenges caused by interrelated factors at global, regional, national, and local levels. Therefore, definitions have differed by country and time period. The most widely shared definition would be the one by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared at the World Food Summit in 1996: "Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life". At the same time, "food sovereignty" and "the right to food" are also important concepts that have been presented to attach importance to the viewpoints of farmers, consumers, and communities.

Food security is an important risk factor that forms the basis of people's livelihoods and is closely tied to overall regional security. For example, some have suggested that the 2006~2008 Global Food Crisis was a remote cause of the "Arab Spring/Revolution" from the end of 2010 to the beginning of 2011. There is an apparently strong relationship between food insecurity and political instability. Large-scale protests called "the Second Arab Spring" spread across countries in 2019, leading to regime changes in Sudan and Algeria; food insecurity in the region appears to have grown over the past ten years.

Since February 2020, amid the rapid global spread of COVID-19, efforts to secure food have expanded worldwide, including export restrictions imposed by grain exporting countries such as Russia and Ukraine. In February, a massive "once-in-70 years" outbreak of desert locusts occurred in East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, triggering food crises in these regions. In August, an explosion at Beirut Port in Lebanon killed at least 200 people and injured 6,000. Lebanon depends on imports for 85% of its food, and 70% of its total imports arrived at Beirut Harbor. The blast destroyed giant silos stocking 15,000 tons of wheat and barley, driving the entire nation to food shortage. These effects are now being felt among Syrian refugees - said to be one in four people in Lebanon - exacerbating the plight and division of citizens from both countries.

As seen in the case of Lebanon, many countries in the region are highly dependent on food imports. While varying widely by country and commodity, the MENA region's 'food dependency', i.e., the percentage of calories consumed per day from imported foods, rose from 10% in the 1960s to about 50% in 2018; the population in the region also increased from about 100 million to about 530 million over the same period.

The fundamental factor underlying such high food imports in the MENA region is the scarcity of farmland and fresh irrigation water suitable for food production in the face of rapid population growth, which has increased the region's vulnerability to climate change.

Food Security in the MENA Region: Regional Cooperation or National Agribusiness

Except for the Mediterranean basin and the vicinity of major rivers such as the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates, the MENA region is subject to a desert climate and uniformly suffers from water scarcity. In general, countries in the region have been facing common challenges of rapid population growth, particularly young populations and the resulting higher and more diverse food demand. Agricultural products in the MENA region, unlike those in Asia and the EU countries, are similar. Therefore, complementarity within the region is not high. On the other hand, there are large differences in income and human development indicators arising from the uneven existence of carbon fuel resources. While fears of hunger exist in Syria and Yemen where protracted conflicts destroyed sustainable domestic food production and disrupted distribution systems, countries like the United Arab Emirates can import food equivalent to US$2,564 per capita even though it cannot produce enough food for domestic consumption. According to the IMF, the UAE's GDP per capita was US$39,180 in 2019, close to Japan's US$40,000. These disparities in the region are important factors in considering regional food security.

There have been many attempts to pursue regional cooperation on food security and water utilization. As a recent example, the "Land and Water Days Conference" was held at the initiative of the FAO, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Arid Lands (ICARDA) and other organizations, with more than 60 international organizations and governments participating. At the 2019 Cairo Conference, the prospect was presented that fresh water per capita in the region would be halved by 2050 and that effective land and water use for regional food security was a pressing issue; and the FAO Near East and North Africa Water Rare Initiative was proposed to incorporate concrete technical advice and best practices in those fields.

On the other hand, despite such calls for regional cooperation, moves toward achieving national food security have been growing. Since the Global Food Crisis from 2006 to 2008, agribusiness in the form of land transactions and agricultural investment has spread around the world, with rich countries and companies leasing farmland mainly in developing countries, producing agricultural products and exporting them to their own countries. Although these activities contribute to the realization of national food security in the investor countries, they have caused problems such as employment and food supply insecurities and the acceleration of desertification in the hosting countries; these investment activities have been criticized as "land grabbing" by the international community.

In the case of the MENA region, governments and corporations in financially affluent countries, such as the Gulf oil-producing countries, have expanded their investments in agricultural land in countries with relatively high agricultural productivity but with fewer financial resources and weaker governance.

The Republic of the Sudan, with a vast territory approximately five times that of Japan, is a prominent example of agricultural investment. From its independence in 1956 to the secession of South Sudan in July 2011, the country and its people were impoverished by multiple coups and conflicts, but the rich agricultural land of the Nile River Valley earned it the eulogistic name of 'the breadbasket of the Arab world'.

Since the late 2000s, investment from Gulf oil-producing countries, Egypt, Iraq, Brazil, and other countries has been concentrated in the farmland of Gezira State, whose capital is Wad Madani, where the Blue Nile and the White Nile converge in the south of the national capital Khartoum. The creation of this fertile irrigated area dates back to the Gezira Irrigation Scheme of 19251. Over time, water was drawn from the Nile and the area expanded to about 882,000 hectares, an area larger than Hiroshima Prefecture, mainly for the cultivation of cotton. Some of this land, from thousands to tens of thousands of hectares, has been used for producing edible and non-edible grains, vegetables and grains for biofuels under the management of foreign capital and private companies in Sudan. This has been criticized at home and abroad since the produce is often intended not for domestic consumption within the country but for export to investor and neighboring countries.

Challenges and Prospects

While there are common regional challenges in the MENA region, it is evident that individual countries have been taking actions that prioritize their own interests. The attention of the international community has centered on the engagement of the United States and the rivalry among regional powers for regional hegemony. However, given that the region as a whole is most vulnerable to the growing impacts of climate change, it is important to promote regional cooperation and formulate rules for making water resource management and agricultural land investment more sustainable in the long term, and the international community must support such endeavors.

(This is a revised paper dated March 18, 2021 originally written in Japanese.)

1 Herve Plusquellec. The Gezira Irrigation Scheme in Sudan - Objectives, Design, and Performance, World Bank Technical Paper No. 120 (Washington, DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, 1990). According to Plusquellec, the Gezira Irrigation Scheme was first designed in the 1920s. However, Yoshiko Kurita (2000) indicates that the Scheme can be dated back much earlier to 1913, during the Anglo-Egyptian condominium rule that started in 1899, and that it was regarded as important for Sudan's development. See Yoshiko Kurita. Kindai Sudan ni okeru taisei hendou to minzoku keisei (Regime Transformation and National Formation in Modern Sudan), Otsuki Shoten, 2000, pp.179-184 (in Japanese).