Causes and Consequences of Food Insecurity in the Middle East

In collaboration with partner organizations, Qatar’s National Food Security Program hosted the ‎‎“International Conference on Food Security in Dry Lands” in Doha on November 14th and 15th, ‎‎2012. National, regional, and international institutions participated in the conference and ‎addressed challenges facing dry lands in their pursuit of food security. The conference focused ‎on the three thematic areas of: (i) food security; (ii) water demand, resources, and management; ‎and (iii) responsible investment. As part of the focus on food security, the Center for ‎International and Regional Studies led a panel discussion titled “Causes and Consequences of ‎Food Insecurity in the Middle East” moderated by Zahra Babar, Assistant Director of research at ‎CIRS and co-editor of the forthcoming CIRS book Food Security and Food Sovereignty in the ‎Middle East (Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2014). The panel consisted of three panelists who presented three country case studies ‎that addressed economic, social, and political causes of food insecurity in Egypt, Yemen, and ‎Lebanon. ‎

Raymond Bush, a professor of African Studies and Development Politics at the University of ‎Leeds, presented on food security in Egypt. Although Egypt boasts vast areas of arable land, ‎as well as a high level of agricultural skill and know-how, it faces the problem of insufficient ‎food production. By exploring the Egyptian agricultural strategy since the onset of economic ‎liberalization in the 1980s, Bush highlighted that Egypt’s inability to defend its food security is ‎due to the exclusion of farmers and food producers from the political debates that set agricultural ‎strategies. Reflective of the governing regime, agricultural modernization strategies in Egypt have ‎been authoritarian in nature with limited outreach and sustainability. In the context of the Arab Spring, the increased Egyptian enthusiasm for political pluralism and rural empowerment may ‎lead to the co-operative inclusion of farmers in the agricultural policy debate and the eventual ‎improvement of Egypt’s food security situation. ‎

The second panelist, Martha Mundy, talked about the impact of food and agriculture policies on ‎property relations and the ecological base of food production in Yemen. A reader in Anthropology at the London School of Economics and a specialist in the ‎anthropology of the Arab World, Mundy argued that these policies were largely influenced by oil ‎rent and oil-derived political rent while significantly disregarding the Yemeni biosphere. As the ‎international community plays an increasingly more active role in guiding Yemen towards a food-‎secure future, Mundy emphasized the need to have a holistic approach that prioritizes farming ‎skills conducive to environmental conservation. The case of Yemen depicts that policies ‎surrounding food aid need to move beyond the sanctification of the "rules of the market," which ‎have led to environmental degradation, farmers’ loss of capacity to produce food, and exclusion ‎of farmers from the agro-based revenue accumulated by the oligarchical state. ‎

Presenting the case of food security in Lebanon was Jad Chaaban, assistant professor of ‎Economics at the American University of Beirut. As a small-import dependent country, Lebanon ‎faces high risks of price volatility that negatively affect its ability to meet its food and beverage ‎consumption needs. The accessibility and profitability of agricultural produce is further hindered ‎by the oligopolistic concentration of supply chain inputs and food trade monopolies. In order to ‎overcome these food security challenges, Chaaban recommended the need for a national ‎integrated cross-sectoral food policy that takes into consideration the presence of long-term ‎residences such as refugees, recognizes farmers as legal units, enhances competition amongst ‎farmers, and supports local food production.‎

In addition to their respective case studies, the panelists discussed additional causes of food ‎insecurity such as food-waste and post-harvest handing as well as irresponsible agricultural ‎investment. The panelists emphasized that agricultural investments need to be socially conscious ‎and not just based on profit. These investments have repercussions beyond the land rented and ‎crop produced. The fact that those who produce food are generally the most food insecure ‎indicates that equity driven agricultural production has dire consequences on farmer families and ‎environmental preservation.‎

Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS