The Arab region is one of the world’s most lacking in food security, which is mainly attributed to the fact that most countries in the region depend for their food on imports, thus are always impacted by changes in food prices.According to the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development, in 2011 the Arab region’s self-sufficiency in grains was estimated at 45% of that year’s needs. In addition, the region is subjected to the risks of climate change and drought and heat rates did reach their highest between the years 1998 and 2011, which led to expedited desertification. The region also suffers from water shortage, a deterioration in the quality of land, and the decline of livestock. The agriculture sector and rural areas are generally the most susceptible to climate and environmental changes, which in turn poses serious challenges for farmers.
Until the mid-20th century, agriculture was the sector that absorbed the largest portion of labor force. Agricultural reformation programs implemented by several Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Algeria had a substantial impact on land ownership structure and the nature of agricultural policies. Despite the implementation of neoliberal policies across the Arab region and the remarkable impact such policies had on arable land, the restructuring of the agricultural sector still varied from one country to another and even from one province to another within the same country. It is not possible to envision an alternative program for the agriculture sector in the Arab region without thoroughly examining national agricultural policies in general and the dynamics of the agricultural sector and its main players in particular. This is the main purpose of this paper. The paper is divided into two parts, The first part of this paper analyzes agricultural policies in the Arab region and the impact of the food security policy. The second part focuses on the Egyptian case first through looking into agricultural production and the conditions of farmers and second through attempting to offer an alternative model based on the principle of food sovereignty and environmentally-friendly farming.
I- The agricultural sector and rural communities in the Arab region: An overview
Agriculture occupies 5.1% of the total area of the Arab region, which translates into 1,344 billion hectares while pastures occupy 36% and forests 3.6%. Most agricultural land in the Arab region fall within arid or semi-arid areas. There are three main sources of water: surface water, subterranean water, and rain. Some countries fully depend on subterranean water which is the case in the Gulf region while other countries depend almost fully on rivers such as Egypt (94.3%) or to a great extent such as Iraq (56%) and Yemen (45.6%) and this percentage drops to 28-29% in Syria and Jordan, 10-16% in Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Palestine, and Mauritania, and 5-10% in Tunisia, Somalia, Sudan. Total water resources in the Arab region are estimated at 257.5 billion cubic meter, 14.1% of which is subterranean water and 81.2% surface water, and the total area of irrigated land is 21.5%. The per capita share of water in the Arab region is estimated at 790 cubic meters annually, which is below the water poverty line (1000 cubic meters annually).
The total population of the Arab world is estimated at 370.44 million, 42.31% of which live in the countryside. Despite the decline of the share of agriculture in the gross domestics product in the Arab region to only 5.4%, it still constitutes 22.3% of the total labor force. The percentage of workers in the agriculture sector varies from one country in the region to another as in some countries it is still one of the major labor markets, which becomes obvious in Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, and Sudan, where agriculture is also the source of income for a large number of citizens.
1- Food security as the foundation of national agricultural policies in the Arab world:
There is not one agricultural structure that can be applied to all countries in the Arab region, yet the adoption and implementation of liberal policies and their impact on arable land is one common characteristic that can be traced in the most countries. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security is a “situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.
Based on this definition, four dimensions of food security can be identified: food availability, economic and physical access to food, food utilization, and stability over time.
Food security does not mean that the state is committed to produce food, but to make it available to the people by whatever means whether through production, importing, or foreign aid. There are several types of food policies implemented in the Arab region. Some Arab countries export vegetables and fruits and import grains and oils such as Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) depend mostly on imports while developing their ability to store foodstuffs locally, and other counties like Yemen and Somalia mainly rely on external aid. Despite the fact that the dominant rhetoric is that of food security, the global food crisis that took place in 2007-2008 and had a substantial impact on the region put into question the viability of policies that solely cater to food security.
2- Limitations of food security: Food gap, land grabs, and hunger:
Since the early 1970s, the oil boom, population growth, and the shift to different food consumption pattern that is mainly meat-based were all factors that led to a remarkable increase in the demand for food in the Arab region. This also led to the creation of a food gap. As shown in Table (1), the food group with a low self-sufficiency rate is comprised of grains, vegetable oils, and sugar with a percentage less than 50% while legumes, white meat, and dairy products have a medium self-sufficiency rate, and fish, fruits, vegetables, eggs, and potatoes have a high self-sufficiency rate. The Arab region’s reliance on imported foodstuffs is expected to increase in the future if a radical change in the dominant food and agricultural system does not take place. It is noteworthy that the availability of food on the national level does not necessarily means that all individuals and families have access to it, for hunger can spread while food is availableand that is exactly why focusing on food security in its holistic sense is quite problematic.
|Commodity||Percentage of self-sufficiency|
Table (1): Percentage of self-sufficiency in food commodities (year 2013)
Source: “Food Security in the Arab Region” (2013) Arab Organization for Agricultural Development
The 2007-2008 global food crises underlined the limitation of food security policies. Faced with the new reality that Jason Moore called “the end of cheap food,” many countries in the region started getting concerned over their food security, hence their political stability. For example, GCC states adopted an approach that relies on grabbing land in other countries and producing food directly in those countries. This is done through grabbing lands from local individuals and families and giving them to foreign investors, which is considered by many as a form of “neo-colonialism.”
|Grabbing country||Country of grabbed land||Land area||Declared purpose|
|Saudi Arabia||Ethiopia, Sudan, Senegal, South Sudan, Russia, Philippines, Argentina, Egypt, Mali, Nigeria, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan, Zambia||
(One third of this area in Ethiopia)
|Direct export of corn, soya beans, fodder, grains, vegetables, fruits, chicken|
|United Arab Emirates||Sudan, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia, Namibia, Pakistan, Romania, Spain, Sudan, Tanzania||1,800,000 hectares||Direct export of sweet potatoes, olives, dairy products, fodder, oils, grains, cotton|
|Qatar||Cambodia, Sudan, Turkey, Brazil, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, Australia, Indonesia, Philippines||Not available||Direct export of sheep, rice, corn, barley|
|Kuwait||Cambodia, Laos, Philippines||Not available||Direct export of rice and corn|
|Bahrain||Philippines||Not available||Direct export of rice|
|Oman||Philippines||Not available||Direct export of rice|
Table (2): Land grabs by GCC states abroad
Source: Benjamin Shepherd. “GCC States’ Land Investments Abroad: The Case of Ethiopia.” Center for International and Regional Studies, 2013. George Town University, Qatar
As it becomes obvious in Table (2), Saudi Arabia buys or rents land in different parts of the world to produce food and fodder directly instead of importing them from international producers and also to avoid draining its own water resources. Saudi Arabia adopted a self-sufficiency strategy since the 1980s until 2009 and this strategy did bear fruit as far as self-sufficiency in wheat and fodder is concerned, yet that was at the expense of its already limited water resources. This is when the kingdom stopped cultivating green fodder for three years and started partially lifting subsidy on the cultivation of wheat until it was completely lifted. The UAE is the biggest GCC buyer of land abroad in order to face the soaring prices of food, especially that it imports 80% of its needs. It is noteworthy that the phenomenon of land grabbing is not exclusive to GCC states but also extends to other countries such as the United States and Malaysia, which together with the UAE are the world’s three biggest land grabbers with more than 23.5 million hectares in grabbed land.
Land grabbing does help GCC states to face future food crises, yet this causes crises in the countries whose lands they grab and in which poverty and food shortage tend to increase. Grabbed lands are also usually owned by locals who have no other source of income or food and the land also constitutes the center of their social and cultural life. Shepherd explains that grabbing contracts are usually simple and inaccurate and that they do not preserve the right of the locals. The contracting process also lacks transparency. In addition, substantial custom privileges and tax exemptions are given to the investors in the first years of production. The Sudanese case offers a flagrant example. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar grabbed large amounts of land from Sudanese farmers under state cover, which aggravated the food crises in the country and turned Sudan to the bread basket of Gulf countries at the expense of Sudanese citizens. In addition to the unethical nature of land grabs, they are always the cause of popular protests against the state. This happened in 2009 in Madagascar when the state rented 1.3 million hectares to Korean investors and the protests did in fact lead to ousting the government. In Egypt, following the January 25 revolution in 2011, the land owned by the company of Saudi Prince Al-Walid Ibn Talal in Toshka was reduced from 100 to 10 thousand acres only. The remaining was sold to the army at a major loss in February of this year 2017, according to press reports.
At the time when Gulf States are securing their needs of food, other countries are increasingly suffering from poverty and lack of food. According to the 2014 FAO report, around 33 million people in rural areas in the Arab region, where poverty rates are higher, suffered from malnutrition.Table (3) demonstrates the concentration of poverty in the rural areas of some Arab countries. In Egypt and Tunisia, rural poverty rates exceeded 75% and 80% in Sudan and Yemen. FAO reports link between conflicts and lack of political stability in the Arab region on one hand and the prevalence of poverty on the other hand. In Iraq, food prices rise by 25-30% in governorates in which conflicts take place than in the capital Baghdad and in Palestine, displacement, deterioration of living standards, and growing unemployment rates as a result of the practices of Israeli occupation authorities triggered a remarkable decline in food security, which is especially demonstrated in the besieged Gaza Strip. In 2013, 33% of Palestinians were categorized as lacking food security in addition to 16% threatened to lose their food security. In early 2015, the conflict in Syria resulted in 8.9 million people to need nutritional aid of different levels. The migration of Syrians to neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey affected food provisions and made it more difficult for the refugees to have access to food.
|Country||Percentage of poor urban inhabitants of the total population||Percentage of poor rural inhabitants of the total population||Percentage of poor rural inhabitants of the total rural population|
Table (3): The concentration of poverty in rural areas in the Arab region
Source: World Bank, FAO, IFAD
It is, therefore, clear that the structure of agricultural policies and the deficiency of food security strategies are the main factors of the absence of food sovereignty in the Arab region. Fixing this requires making radical changes to the current system, changes that apply to both the production and consumption of food. This can be done through an alternative approach that, first and foremost, gives precedence to local residents and producers.
II- The case of Egypt: Towards an alternative agricultural-food system
In the 1960s, Egypt witnessed an agricultural boom that resulted in increasing production rates in general as well as the productivity of the agricultural unit in particular. Between that time and the second decade of the 20th century, Egyptian agricultural policies went through radical transformations that saw, for example, a shift from supporting small landowners and offering modified seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides with subsidized prices to the partial or total lifting of such subsidies and giving precedence to investors and to export or cash crops. Table (4) shows that despite the decline in subsidies, self-sufficiency rates are still relatively high in a number of crops/products.
Table (4): Self-sufficiency percentage in some crops/products in Egypt (2013)
Source: MARZIN, Jacques, et al. 2017
1- From small production to environmentally-friendly farming:
According to the 2006 census, the population of the countryside in Egypt is estimated at 41 million, which translates into 57.36% of the total population, 13 million of whom work in farming. Agriculture provides around 63% of the food need of the Egyptian population and constitutes around 13% of the gross domestic product according to 2009/2010 statistics.
Small farmers are the main component of agriculture in the Nile Valley and the Delta and are the main producers of food. Table (5) shows that owners of less than five acres constitute more than 90% of the total number of landowners while around 9% own less than 20 acres and only 1% own more than 20 acres, but own 24.9% of cultivated land. Farmers are not one single entity whose members share the same characteristics and interests. As a result of the several changes witnessed by the agriculture sector in the past 30 years, sources of farmers’ income started to vary, which in turn made the structure of the whole class more complex and less homogenous. In fact, the percentage of farmers who work part-time or full-time outside the agriculture sector has almost reached 80%. Poverty in Egypt has also become a rural phenomenon since around 70% of residents of rural areas are classified as poor, concentrated in particular in Upper Egypt. According to the World Food Program, rural youths constitute 59% of Egyptian youths and 85% of poor Egyptian youths.
|Less than 1 acre||Landowners %||36||36.1||48.3|
|5- 10 acres||2.1||6.8||5.2|
|10- 20 acres||4.4||2.1||2|
|20- 50 acres||2.3||0.9||0.8|
|50- 100 acres||0.7||0.2||0.1|
|More than 100 acres||0.6||0.1||0.1|
Table (5): The development of the percentage of landowners and land areas for different echelons in the years 1929, 1990, and 2010
Source: Different agricultural statistics; MARZIN, Jacques, et al. 2017.
As demonstrated in the table, small production was one of the most significant characteristics of land ownership in the late 19th century. In the 1960s, small farmers benefited from the new technologies manifested in the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which had its ecological toll on both the soil and the water and had a negative impact on the natural diversity of crops. Also, dwindling state control led to a growing monopolization of pesticides and fertilizers, which, in addition to the ecological impact, increased farming costs.
In the light of these factors, Egyptian agriculture seemed to have reached a deadlock. Although agricultural production continued, the decline on several fronts necessitated finding an alternative model founded on food sovereignty, balanced utilization of resources, and sustainable consumption.
2- Food sovereignty as a framework for an alternative agricultural economy:
Food sovereignty was first coined by the global farmers’ organization La Via Campesina in 1996 and defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” In 2007, a clearer concept emerged during the Forum for Food Sovereignty held in the village of Nyéléni in Mali and which resulted in the Declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, Nyéléni 2007: “Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations”.
The concept of food sovereignty is based on the fact that food is a right and not a commodity that is subject to profitability, stresses the right of food producers in a dignified life and working environment, and gives precedence to local and regional markets over international ones. Food sovereignty is also an ecological system that regulates the relation between farmers and natural resources and that is why it requires developing the research necessary to establish alternative farming models.
3- Alternative agricultural production: Eco-agriculture:
Eco-agriculture or eco-friendly agriculture is a science, a social movement, and a set of farming practices. Regarding the first part, food sovereignty is based on the implementation of ecology in agriculture for the development and management of sustainable ecological-agricultural system that enhance food sovereignty. This system includes balanced use of resources, improving soil fertility, supporting biodiversity, and the protection of wild species. As a social movement, food sovereignty focuses on the food system as a whole and aims at improving the living conditions of the rural population and effecting a change in consumption patterns by minimizing waste through, for example, introducing short food supply chains. It also includes an active role for farmers in particular and citizens in general through democratic participation in the decision-making process and re-defining the relation between the farmers and the environment and which was damaged by the capitalist system. Concerning farming practices, food sovereignty brings back to the forefront the significance of farmers’ knowledge and traditional farming practices in the preservation of resources and how they can be utilized for the development of modernized eco-agricultural strategies.The current knowledge production system in the agriculture sector overlooks farmers’ knowledge and expertise in favor of strategies that aim at controlling the agricultural process through large amounts of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and modified seeds. On the other hand, eco-agriculture is a comprehensive system that combines ecology and agriculture with farmers’ knowledge for the sake of establishing a model that works for the best interest of those three components. Figure (1) demonstrates the strategies that need to be followed in ordered to implement an eco-agricultural system and how these strategies lead, in turn, to improving the entire farming process.
1- Ecological strategies for making the best use of eco-agricultural systems:
– Enhancing natural pest control as opposed to the use of pesticides
– Decreasing toxicity through minimizing the use of chemical fertilizers
– Improving metabolic function (the breaking down of organic matter and the nitrogen cycle)
– Balancing ecological and social systems (nitrogen cycles, water balance, energy flow, population, waste management)
– Improving soil fertility and protecting biodiversity
2- Mechanisms for maintaining eco-agricultural system
– Increasing crop types and genetic diversity in the same land plot at the same time
– Enhancing functional biological diversity (natural pest control, cover crops… etc.)
– Enhancing the soil’s organic matter and biological activity through managing the biological activity of the soil
– Increasing soil cover and the integral power of crops
– Getting rid of toxic inputs and waste
Figure (1): Eco-agricultural strategies
Source: Altieri, Miguel A. (2000) & Miguel A. Altieri and Victor Manuel Toledo (2011)
4- Foundations of an alternative agricultural policy:
An alternative agricultural policy requires a radical change in the current system, one that offers financial incentives, market opportunities, and eco-agricultural technologies and, needless to say, policies that support all these. Although current laws do not provide the required framework for achieving food sovereignty, the current Egyptian constitution, drafted in 2014, contains an article that can allow for the establishment of an alternative agricultural policy. Article 79 states that “Each citizen has the right to healthy and sufficient food and clean water. The State shall ensure food resources to all citizens. The State shall also ensure sustainable food sovereignty and maintain agricultural biological diversity and types of local plants in order to safeguard the rights of future generations”.
Figure (2): Foundations of alternative economic policy in Egypt
Source: The researcher
It is also necessary to support the emergence of a generation of eco-agricultural engineers who would be aware of the significance of the farmers’ knowledge and expertise. In fact, a number of recent studies revealed that the productive efficiency of farmers and their ability to make the best use of resources have acquired an academic legitimacy that made them the subject of several courses and research projects in a number of universities around the world. Although eco-agricultural sciences are still marginalized in Egypt where the training of agricultural engineers still focuses on industrial agriculture and the draining of resources, several experts in eco-agriculture are starting to emerge and are expected to constitute the nucleus of academia in this field. This is not only happening in schools of agriculture in Egyptian universities, but also in educational and training institutions affiliated to civil society organizations, many of which started programs that aim at empowering small farmers and training them in eco-agricultural technologies. Even though these are still nascent attempts that are done on small plots of land, they still represent a potential for starting an eco-agricultural system on the local level.
As demonstrated in figure (2), the alternative model does not only focus on production, but also consumption as well as reconsidering the entire local food system that is largely controlled by corporates, long food supply chains, and remote central markets. It is important to raise awareness among citizens so that they engage in individual and communal initiatives and form lobby groups in order to support farmers and local production and call for increasing state expenditure in this field as a step towards reaching food sovereignty. Getting out of the current food system requires a major change in consumption patterns and food behavior and the revival of a culture in which the consumption of meat drops to once or twice a week and the consumption of fruits and vegetables increases.
Farmers are an integral component to agricultural policies and that is why an alternative policy only becomes viable when based on acknowledging the value of farmers’ knowledge, especially in the light of the expertise of Egyptian farmers and the history of Egyptian farming. It is, indeed, a long way, yet societal initiatives coupled with farmers’ willingness to adopt new methods constitute the first steps towards finding an alternative instead of re-producing old patterns that have for long proved a failure.
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A hectare is 10,000 meters.
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In the Egyptian case, 100 thousand acres from the Toushka project in Southern Egypt were sold to the Kingdom Holding Company owned by Saudi prince al-Walid Ibn Talal. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights published the contract: https://is.gd/Rlr0kW
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 Several studies highlighted the significance of farmers’ expertise. Examples include:
– H. Binswanger-Mkhize and A. F. McCalla. “The Changing Context and Prospects for Agricultural and Rural Development in Africa.” In Prabhu Pingali and Robert Evenson (eds.), Handbook of Agricultural Economics, Volume 4. Elsevier: Amsterdam, 2010.
 This article is the result of the combined efforts of a number of academics and activists in the fields of farmers’ rights and farmers’ unions that emerged following the January 2011 revolution. A working group called the Food Sovereignty Group was established to draft a proposal to the Constituent Assembly that was in charge with drafting the constitution. Although the proposal offered by the group was more detailed than the article that was approved at the end, this article was still considered a step towards initiating an alternative agricultural system.
 Alexander Wezel, Stéphane Bellon, Thierry Doré, , et al. “Agroecology as a Science, a Movement and a Practice: A Review.” Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 2009, vol. 29, no 4, p. 503-515.
 The Better Life Association for Development and Training offers this kind of training in several villages in the governorate of Minya in Upper Egypt. The late Atef Kishk, who was a professor at the Faculty of Agriculture at Minya University, took part in supporting eco-agriculture. Several young researchers in the Upper Egyptian governorates of Qena, Aswan, and Sohag acquired their PhD degrees in topics related to eco-agriculture, which demonstrates that academia is growing in this field in Egypt.