Najib Saab| The Daily Star

Arabs import half of what they need in terms of basic foodstuffs. Agricultural production in the Arab countries faces tremendous challenges – mainly drought, limited arable land, scarce water resources and accelerated population growth, all amid the adverse impact of climate change.

However, Arab countries have largely failed to adequately deal with the challenges posed by limited natural resources. The deteriorating condition of agricultural production is attributed mainly to inappropriate policies, meager investment in science and technology, poor agricultural development and the absence of regional cooperation. These are some of the conclusions reached in a report on food security to be released this week by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development at the organization’s annual conference in Amman.

Still, the AFED report outlines a potentially positive conclusion. Though the situation is critical, as the Arab world largely relies on imported food and exploits its scarce natural resources in an unsustainable manner, the report emphasizes that Arabs can reverse this trend through a package of measures.

At the forefront of these are improved land productivity and higher irrigation efficiency, which do not exceed half of the recognized international rates. Alongside calling for the adoption of more effective policies and the advancement of agricultural scientific research, the report urges regional cooperation based on the exploitation of comparative advantages in a region known for significant discrepancies in natural resources and income levels.

The AFED report illustrates success stories of model projects in Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, Syria and Tunisia. Productivity increased through the successful employment of integrated management methods for water use and crop production. However, the report points out that some of the successes were undermined as a result of armed conflict in the region during the few past years.

In addition to improved irrigation efficiency, water productivity can also be enhanced through the use of alternative agricultural commodities with similar nutritional value, but that are less water-intensive. The adoption of nonconventional methods is also necessary, most importantly the reuse of treated wastewater.

Food and water are interrelated, especially in the driest region on earth. The per-capita share of renewable fresh water in the Arab world is eight times less than the global average. Thirteen out of the 22 Arab countries suffer severe water scarcity. The AFED report placed six Arab countries in a new “exceptional water scarcity” category, meaning they possess renewable water resources of less than 100 cubic meters per capita.

To make matters worse, there are regions where there is a lack of arable land alongside abundant fresh water; or arable land with a dearth of fresh water. The challenge increases as 85 percent of the water is used for agriculture, given low rates of irrigation efficiency and land productivity. The average irrigation efficiency in 19 Arab countries does not exceed 46 percent, compared to a global average of 70 percent. If Arab countries managed to reach the global average, they could save 50 billion cubic meters of water, an amount enough to produce 30 million tons of grains, half the total of the region’s imported grains.

Improving food security will require reducing food loss in transportation and storage, whether domestically produced or imported. Losses in imported wheat to Arab countries as a result of inefficient storage and transportation exceed 3 million tons per year. This is equivalent to 40 percent of total local production of wheat, for a value of $4 billion per year, equivalent to four months of wheat imports. The AFED report concludes that by developing the transportation sector and mainstreaming procedures for the passage of foodstuffs through border crossings, food prices can fall by 25 percent and budget deficits slashed by 30 percent.

The report also states that Arab countries, as a group, have the potential to become self-sufficient in seafood production, while they consume significant amounts of red meat, mostly imported. As a result, the report calls for promoting fish and poultry production and consumption, to replace a large portion of the red meat consumed – for economic, environmental and health reasons.

It is also necessary to shift to agricultural production that consumes less water. All this necessitates a change in food consumption patterns. This would become a necessity, not merely an option, if Egypt, for example, were not to have enough water to grow rice. In such a case, Egyptians would have to turn to other commodities to feed an estimated 200 million people by 2050. Can Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, continue to expand its milk exports and sustain its vast number of 200,000 dairy cows by depleting groundwater to grow fodder?

The shift in consumers’ habits is a daunting challenge. When the former Saudi trade minister Hashim Yemani asked Saudi citizens a few years ago to change their dietary habits, starting with the replacement of rice for a few days of the week by another product, following a spike in world food prices, he was subjected to a fierce campaign that led to his replacement. Yemani may find consolation in the AFED report in that it emphasizes the necessity of adjusting dietary habits as an essential component of any sound food security plan. The challenge in the region is not restricted to volatile and rising prices of imported products, because the day may come when we will not find sufficient quantities of water to produce rice in Egypt or grow fodder to feed cows in Saudi Arabia.

Some may perceive the AFED report on food security in Arab countries as unrealistic in a region that is currently struggling with major problems. However, in the aftermath of wars and conflict we will still need to feed some 400 million people day daily. This is feasible by increasing land productivity, improving irrigation efficiency and changing food consumption patterns, in parallel with enhanced regional cooperation. All these measures can be successful only if coupled with environment protection, given that the preservation of natural resources remains at the heart of promoting production and attaining food security.

When it comes to food safety, officials have to examine the whole food chain to detect problems, not limit attention to the end product, as we recently witnessed in Lebanon when the health minister highlighted the lack of cleanliness of food products and erroneously confused food safety and food security.

Najib Saab, the secretary-general of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, is co-editor of the report on food security in Arab countries which AFED is releasing on Nov. 26 in Amman, Jordan. This

commentary is being published simultaneously on the Arab Food and Nutrition Security Blog, an initiative of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 25, 2014, on page 7.

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