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.”
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Climate change negatively impacting production

The possible effects of climate change in the region are dramatic. Some climatologists have suggested that parts of the region may eventually become uninhabitable, with an increasing number of climate refugees.

According to researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia, the temperature during summer in the already very hot Middle East and North Africa will increase more than two times faster compared to the average global warming. This means that during hot days temperatures south of the Mediterranean will reach around 46 degrees C (approximately 114 degrees F) by mid-century. Such extremely hot days will occur five times more often than was the case at the turn of the millennium. In combination with increasing air pollution by windblown desert dust, the environmental conditions could become intolerable and may force people to migrate.

“In the future, the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa could change in such a manner that the very existence of its inhabitants is in jeopardy,” said Jos Lelieveld, director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and Professor at the Cyprus Institute.
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War taking toll on Iraq, Syria

Conflict has had a dramatic effect on agricultural production in parts of the region. A report published in 2015 by AL Monitor, quoted Iraqi Minister of Agriculture Ghazi al-Abboudi as saying that his country “lost 40% of its agricultural production capacity after the Islamic State (IS) took control of the most productive provinces.”

He said the Ministry of Agriculture had hoped to achieve self-sufficiency and to announce it officially at the end of this year.

The report pointed out that nearly a third of Iraq’s population works in the agricultural sector, which provides a living for about 11 million out of 35 million Iraqis.

Abboudi told the newspaper Al-Hayat, “The plan was designed to fully achieve self-sufficiency and food security and to officially announce it at the end of this year. Yet, security developments and the entry and control of terrorist gangs, namely IS, over the richest agricultural towns have prevented that.”

In a separate article the same source reported that Syrian agriculture is near collapse. It quoted a telephone call to Semaan al-Kheir, a farmer from the countryside of Homs. “We previously relied on rainfall to irrigate winter crops and on the irrigation water provided by the Ministry of Agriculture during the three months of summer, which proved enough for summer crops, leaving the soil well irrigated with the needed organic components,” he said. “Today, five years into the war, we are only relying on rainfall, bringing summer agriculture to a halt. The production decreased due to soil exhaustion and lack of condensed chemical fertilizers. We are now using the available natural fertilizer (manure).”

Hopma explained that the high load placed by refugee movements on countries like Jordan strengthens their case for receiving financial aid. “Jordan has always been reliant on foreign aid since it was founded in 1948,” she said. “The influx of refugees in some ways gives Jordan an extra bargaining card.”

She explained many in the region believe that it cannot improve its food security situation without taking a region-wide approach. Policy-makers do bring up these ideas about having a pan-Arab approach to food security. One organization originally set up as a potential vehicle for such an approach is the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development.

“It is basically a body in which all Arab agriculture ministers come together,” she said. “They still very much argue for a regional approach to food security in which trading between countries of the region is preferred but obviously within the global free trade system there is limited scope for that.

“A lot of people argue that the global free-trade model doesn’t work for them. It hasn’t brought the benefits that people expected. In Jordan, King Abdullah was talking about turning Jordan into the new Arab Singapore.”

That includes making conditions favorable for foreign direct investment. At Jordan’s only port, Aqaba, a new grain terminal has been built.

“They would love to see themselves as this regional facilitator and regional importer of foods,” she said. “So on the one hand you have elites who actually might be interested in a vision of global food security and who say we can actually facilitate the import of food, versus the region toward the Arab hinterland.” On the other hand, social movements and local agricultural sectors contest such an import-reliant vision of regional food security.

“It depends on the country. Import reliance is excessive in some cases and so what I wonder about is why there can’t be on the one hand this realization that we are obviously not ever going to be completely reliant on our home productive sectors, but we will maintain local production where possible, then rely on foreign imports for the rest of it. I don’t understand why that kind of middle way hasn’t been pursued more actively.”

IMF-enforced austerity packages meant that supports for agriculture have fallen away. “Nowadays in Jordan, especially fruit and vegetable producers are expected to compete with European producers, and they are expected to hone in on the comparative advantage which will be exporting to Europe without any significant support (with the exception of water subsidies).”

There is a big distinction in the Middle East between the oil-producing countries and those without oil.

“It makes for spats in terms of food security policy when the oil-producing countries have a different approach,” she said. “Many of the Gulf countries are actively looking to invest in, specifically, parts of East Africa, to grow food there. But for countries like Lebanon and Jordan, such an approach is much more complicated. And, of course, investment overseas may cause many negative knock-on effects.

“In that sense, although some people talk about the need to think about food security policy in a regional sense, that is problematized by the very different outlooks that Arab countries have. A lot of people are optimistic, and they say this kind of vision of a regional policy is just ahead of its time at the moment. We just need to wait for 15 or 20 years when pressure on resources is more acute and people will jump into action.”

However, the region does remain fragmented.

“If influential players like Saudi Arabia are not on board with any kind of regional activity, then you are going to have a very difficult time doing it,” she said. “That also brings me back to the Arab Organization of Agricultural Development. They suffer for a massive lack of funding in that they rely on the Gulf countries, but these are not necessarily interested in regional food security. It is the minor players within that group of countries that are, but they lack the financial resources. In any case, the continued presence of war and occupation in the region complicates any food security policy response.”
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Milling industry struggles with overcapacity

The Middle East is home to several countries with large milling industries, although many wrestle with overcapacity. Levels of state ownership vary.

Egypt, according to a USDA attaché, has more than 410 mills divided between the public, public/private, and private sector mills with total investments of more than $1 billion. The capacity of public and public/private mills range from 50,000 to 55,000 tonnes per day, while private mills’ capacity is estimated at 20,000 tonnes per day. The attaché put capacity utilization, particularly in smaller mills, at less than 50% in 2015-16, “due, in part, to shortages of imported wheat as Egypt goes through a foreign currency crunch,” and quoted private investors as saying that Egypt has overall excess milling capacity of more than 35%.

According to the USDA, Turkey has 725 plants producing wheat flour, with a capacity of 38 million tonnes. Capacity usage is put at 45%.

Turkey is a massive exporter of flour, with about 3.26 million tonnes in wheat equivalent, as well as 700,000 tonnes of pasta exported in 2015-16, according to the USDA.

The big customers are Iraq, which bought about 1.3 million tonnes, Sudan, which bought 550,000 tonnes and Syria, which bought 280,000 tonnes.

Iran has more than 300 licensed flour mills, a number which is steady. Exports of flour to Iraq are rising, with the Ministry of Industry and the Federation of Iranian millers targeting 1 million tonnes of flour exports in one year’s time, especially to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Israel has 19 flour mills with a total capacity of about 1.3 million tonnes, according to the USDA. In addition to milling wheat, there are some imports of packaged flour, mainly from Ukraine and Russia.