No matter how open you think you are when engaging in any given conversation, several things can color your perspective even before you begin.
It is always a pleasant surprise to leave a talk with an unexpectedly optimistic, if cautious, outlook. A discussion about the Arab world today can bring just this sort of measured reflection.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region is riddled with political, economic, social, developmental and security issues. The media bring these challenges to light very regularly. When I approached ICARDA colleagues and more specifically, Director General Dr. Mahmoud Solh, I was burdened with concerns over the great challenges facing the region in general, but particularly with food security and the well-being of the population.
I expected that any information or outlook he shared would only reconfirm my uncertainty. I admit: I was partially wrong…
ICARDA is the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and one of the 15 CGIAR centers. Through its work in agricultural research and development in the dry areas, ICARDA mainly focuses on improving food security, reducing poverty and adapting to climate change. ICARDA also has an impressive Gene Bank consisting of about 153,000 seed samples of major food crops collected from various part of the world, particularly the dry areas. When it had to duplicate the seed collection of the Gene Bank in its headquarters in Aleppo due to the crisis in Syria, ICARDA managed to reconstitute the seed collections fully in both Lebanon and Morocco by drawing from the back-up seed vault in Norway. It rebuilt its new Gene Banks in both Lebanon and Morocco while also continuing to implement its incredible research program and proactively decentralizing its research and capacity building facilities to fit the new reality of the Arab world.
And now back to the topic at hand: the MENA region and what the future may hold for the population in this time of crisis. Some historical concerns did manifest themselves in my discussion with Dr. Solh as he rightfully pointed out that the region was already one of the world’s largest food importing regions even before the upheavals spread in 2010 and 2011.
The Arab world’s per capita consumption and importation of grain is the largest amongst all regions in the world although other regions, such as Asia, have much larger population sizes. By 2010, the region imported 65.8 million tons of cereals. This figure was far larger than the imports for Asia, which was 58.8 million tons in the same year.
However, the MENA region did not place sufficient priority on agriculture until the 2008 food price crisis, when the spike in food prices presented the Arab ministries of Finance and Planning a higher-than-usual food importation bill.
According to Dr. Solh, very few countries in the MENA region had started to prioritize agricultural research and development before the food price crisis. Countries, like Morocco, Syria and Egypt, that also happen to be not wholly reliant on oil, had realized that agricultural development actively contributed to overall economic development. They understood that this contribution was not just in terms of food production, but that agricultural development activated other sectors of the economy, like transport and infrastructure. It also improved employment opportunities within a variety of sectors in the economy.
Still the perspective was not “all roses”, as the Arab world has one of the world’s lowest agricultural productivity per unit area. Dr. Solh highlighted a major gap between the potential and reality of agricultural development in the region. Bridging this gap in agriculture productivity could greatly contribute to food security in the region as was proven through research carried out in countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.
During our talk, it was a bittersweet realization that before the ongoing crisis, Syria had managed to achieve self-sufficiency in wheat and other food crops through extensive investment in agricultural development. With wheat being the staple crop of the region, Syria worked extremely hard to bridge its wheat yield gap.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, Syria – like other countries in MENA – was a net wheat importer. By the early 1990s, Syria had made serious gains and it bridged its yield gap by producing some 3 to 3.5 million metric tons of wheat per year. By 2006, Syria’s yield was closer to 5 million metric tons of wheat and in good years, they even managed some export of their wheat to other countries. And, ICARDA had provided support to the gains made by Syria through continued collaborative research, innovation, knowledge sharing and the provision of better seed varieties.
More recently, ICARDA implemented a food security project funded by the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, the Islamic Development Bank, and the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID), which after three years showed an average 28% increase in wheat production across all 10 Arab countries where the project was implemented. In these countries, the percentage of maximum yield increase even rose to 70%. In Sudan, the maximum increase in wheat production was 145%!
When we spoke about the various factors that contributed to the changes in the overall situation in the region, Syria served as a very useful example: Syria had faced 6 consecutive years of drought starting in 2007/2008 season. This aggravated the food security situation and increased rural to urban migration. During the same period of time, there were also higher levels of unemployment. The above challenges compounded human suffering and challenged the political settings in Syria, as well as in other countries like Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq.
Even now, migration to Europe does not only relate to people moving due to turmoil and violence. People are looking for employment opportunities to earn their living so that they can meet the food needs of their families. In these overly fragile countries of the Arab world, being idle without seeking technical and scientific innovation to solve problems has a real cost.
Some hope does remain when one considers that the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development (AOAD) was set up as a federation of Arab States with the shared goal of using research and innovation to achieve food security. Several countries, including Morocco, Syria, Iraq and Sudan, have greatly benefitted since its establishment in 1970. Morocco has actually managed to invest extensively in water harvesting and agriculture and now has some 1.7 million hectares of irrigated agriculture. Egypt has also invested in agricultural production and nutrition and now, 96% of its agriculture is irrigated by the Nile river water.
Dr. Solh did still stress that the region in general is fragile, and security and political stability are a pre-requisite for sustainable development. He insisted that sustainable development can help boost security and provide new job opportunities for the region’s youth, including its women. The Arab region has high human development potential with people that have extremely good education levels. Otherwise, the region’s best resources—its human resources—in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya will continue to be underutilized with many seeking to move abroad.
At the end of the day, I saw that there were different ways of looking at the developments in the Middle East and North Africa. Yes, there is political instability, insecurity and an overall fragility. But it is up to organizations like ICARDA to consider them either as threats or as opportunities for the region’s future.
My conclusion from my discussion with Dr Solh is that ICARDA has taken the challenges head on, with cautious optimism for agricultural research and innovation to deliver food security in one of the world’s most beleaguered regions. And in its turn it inspired my own cautious optimism!
GFAR has long been fostering innovation and knowledge sharing as a means for rural communities’ development, but specifically as a means of supporting Agricultural Research for Development (AR4D) systems and societal organizations to grow out of protracted crises. Over the years, this support has been through the catalyzation of collective actions with its Regional Forum AARINENA, as well as with its partner ICARDA.
Blogpost by Ekram El-Huni, ekramelhuni(at)hotmail.com, GFAR editor
Photo credit: The Arab Food Security Project via Flickr