Food security issues plague Middle East

by Chris Lyddon
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Middle East food security
Military conflict, displaced population, and climate change taking toll on the region
The Middle East is a diverse region, but many believe it needs to work together to achieve greater food security. The region faces the challenge of conflict and its effects, particularly the mass movement of people, and the longer term challenge of climate change.

Justa Hopma of Aberystwyth University in Wales has researched the issues surrounding food security in the region. “When you talk about the Middle East, it’s very important to recognize the diversity of the agricultural situations between countries,” she told World Grain. “Jordan, for example, has a very limited agricultural base, but if you talk about Syria, perhaps not so much now, and Iraq, it’s a very different story.”

“The 2007 food crisis was a real wake up call, because countries realized that the market-based mechanisms on which they were so reliant didn’t work,” she said. “People were looking for secure supply, secure food supplies.”

International thinking tends to focus on logistics, for example, removing bottlenecks from the supply chain, but she stressed that the most vital problem is to make sure grain keeps being supplied.

“Fundamentally a lot of the policy recommendations don’t address the key issue of food security, of a guaranteed supply of foodstuffs at affordable prices,” she said.

She highlighted the wider role of agriculture in countries where the industry has little chance of achieving self-sufficiency in food.

“An extreme example is Jordan, where 2.5% of the land mass is arable and they only produce about 4% of their wheat needs, but at the same time the existing agriculture does provide people with a livelihood which enables them to make a living.”

Countries are left relying on imports, but needing to maintain their own agricultural systems because of the employment they provide. “Even if the market mechanisms function, a lot of people fall below the poverty line and are not able to purchase food anyway,” said Hopma. “Domestic agriculture remains important even though it doesn’t supply the huge volumes of food.”

She contrasted that situation with the E.U., which does support farmers for social reasons at least as much as to ensure food supply.

“Especially in terms of the unrest that we are seeing in the Middle East, and the conflict, it is impossible to separate the domestic agricultural question from such broader questions,” she said. “It points at the need for approaching food security as a more holistic issue. If you look at, for example, particular areas in Jordan where poverty has a relation with the extent to which people are attracted to radical ideologies, in some ways we can say maintaining a viable domestic agriculture sector is related to that to a degree.

“Also, it is directly connected with the internal politics of the state. In a country like Jordan, the government depends on appealing to the rural middle classes. It is part of this implicit social contract. The rationale for supporting agriculture goes back to cultural or social links and is not necessarily related to production.”