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Sustainable agriculture in the Middle East: Environmental emergency and food security challenge

1 March 2021 Expertises   46354  

Fabienne Durand

The Covid crisis has highlighted the need to relocate what is essential, such as food and drug production. In the Middle East, it is clear that the supply of basic foodstuffs depends heavily, and increasingly so, on international markets, as arable land and water resources are becoming increasingly scarce.

Policies support the production and consumption of cereals, with the result that these water-demanding products, especially wheat, which is a major component of the calorie intake, take up 65% of the cultivated area. Food consumption is projected to grow in the region, with a gradual shift in diet towards animal products. And when we talk about animals, we are talking about livestock farming, and therefore about agricultural areas dedicated to food production to feed farm animals, which are voracious for water.

Water use is expected to remain at unsustainable levels and dependence on global markets is expected to increase, if nothing changes. A sustainable turnaround is needed more than ever in the world, and even more so in this environmentally fragile and geopolitically unstable part of the world.

As one of the world’s largest importers of food products, the Middle East faces many uncertainties on both the supply and demand sides. Uncertainty regarding the supply side is particularly linked to the limits and sustainability of the spaces that lend themselves to production. On the demand side, the uncertainties are the result of the repercussions of conflicts on the geopolitical level and the instability of the world markets for hydrocarbons, which constitute the first of the region’s sources of economic wealth, which are not sustainable.

This poses increasing food and nutritional problems. A major concern is that the region’s supply of key food products is highly, and increasingly, dependent on international markets. This situation has led to the adoption of measures that seem inappropriate in view of the resources available in the region. For example, the region is among the poorest in terms of water and arable land in the world, but water prices are among the lowest in the world and the region heavily subsidises water consumption up to about 2% of its GDP. Regenerating the soil is a real problem, as the region’s crop rotation is difficult to reconcile with the scarcity of water. For example, water-hungry cereals still account for 60% of the harvested area, even though most countries in the region have a comparative advantage in the export of fruit and vegetables.

One of the main reasons for the apparent inconsistency between policy and water scarcity is a vision of food security that aims to reduce dependence on imports, especially of cereals. Yet many countries subsidise the consumption of staple foods and this policy, combined with rising incomes, encourages excessive consumption of starchy foods and sugars, leading to nutritional and health problems such as obesity and diabetes, according to the latest FAO reports.

Food security is affected by conflicts and agricultural choices in this fragile region. It affects 30 million people, particularly in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Sudan. This food security is more than ever a challenge. The support of public authorities is not enough. We need to put in place strategies and a more virtuous agriculture as in the time of the physiocrats.

The Middle East is a difficult environment for agriculture. Water and soil resources are scarce and land, both irrigated and non-irrigated, is constantly suffering degradation caused by wind and water erosion and unsustainable agricultural practices. In most countries in the region, farms are quite small and their owners therefore face the same difficulties as small-scale producers around the world.

Climate change in the region is resulting in a warmer and drier climate and increasing water stress. In addition to the lack of arable land, the cultivated soils are severely degraded, to the extent that they have lost 30-35% of their potential productivity. Ploughing depletes the soil, causing harmful effects such as a decrease in water and organic matter content, making the soil more vulnerable to wind and water erosion.

Land productivity is low in the region. It is also very uneven and can only aggravate tensions between states, but also generate problems of political stability in the region. Let us not forget that the drought in Syria caused a massive rural exodus of the population to Damascus, which contributed to the destabilisation of the regime in 2011. And Egypt, with its rich soils, irrigated cereal production and almost no grazing land, is clearing more than $6,000 per hectare from its agricultural land, while Bahrain, which is content to grow horticultural and livestock crops, is clearing more than $4,000 per hectare. Similarly, in Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, the value of production per hectare amounts to more than $1,000, with a very small area under cereals.

Finally, water is a real issue in the Middle East, beyond conflicts. The problem stems from the scarcity of the resource, but also from the unsustainable use of surface and underground water, which is causing the depletion of the aquifers on which the Middle East is highly dependent. The unsustainable use of water is encouraged by the policies pursued and by poor governance of the resource, irresponsible as in Iran.

Water prices in the region are, of course, the lowest in the world, as water consumption is subsidised (around 2% of GDP). However, the majority of countries in the region are below the generally acceptable “water scarcity threshold” of 1,000 m3 per capita per year of renewable water resources. Agriculture is the sector that uses the most water in each country. In addition, improved water management in the agricultural sector is essential to halt land degradation and enable adaptation to climate change.

What would be the medium-term solutions for the agricultural, fisheries and aquaculture sectors? Awareness of environmental problems is fundamental. This will require the use of the media to enlighten and influence public opinion. Education and training in sustainable problems and solutions are also essential to reverse the trend.

We know that regenerative agriculture is the main way to contribute to the reduction of temperatures by capturing CO2. It is important to better manage water resources and to save and regenerate the soil, through no tillage (ploughing) or minimal tillage, and to ban the use of plant protection products. The roots remaining from the previous crop stabilise the soil, protecting it from erosion, and the organic matter on the surface improves the fertility and water-holding capacity of the soil. Seed drills can be used to insert seeds and fertilisers directly into the soil without ploughing. Admittedly, seed drills are expensive (about $30,000) and the majority of smallholders cannot afford to buy one. For example, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and the Australian government have encouraged the collaboration of local farmers and artisans to produce and sell at an affordable cost nearly 200 seed drills that are now being used in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.

Moreover, the size of farms in the Middle East is one of the most unequal in the world. In some countries in the region (Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon and Iran), the majority of farms are smaller than one hectare. At the other end of the spectrum are a relatively small number of large farms owned by a small number of landowners or the state. Because of their size, small farms do not qualify for public support or bank loans. Sectoral ‘modernisation’ measures have largely excluded small farms from public support: as a result, they are not expanding, are technologically backward and remain poor. There is an urgent need to subsidise these small farms to start the transition.

Soil data are important for farmers and decision-makers. Faced with the outdated soil maps available in the countries of the region, the Institute of Digital Soil Mapping in Amman serves as a regional platform for a global consortium of scientists and researchers. Thus, on GlobalSoilMap.net you will find data from several sources for all audiences. The data can indicate soil pH, volume of water stored, electrical conductivity and carbon content. They are obtained by remote sensing, near and mid-infrared spectroscopy and field sampling. The Global Soil Partnership system of the International Network of Soil Information Institutes can also be used.

On this topic as on others, whether it is the urban or rural universe, which says “sustainable” says “green” and “smart”. It is too often forgotten that the sustainable future depends on this and on the development of another cognitive matrix.

* Political scientist consultant on sustainable development and global warming.