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Food security needs to be more than just increased production

Najib Saab, The Daily Star, 27/2/2019

Food Security in the 21st century was the subject of a report presented to the World Government Summit, held earlier this month in Dubai. The report calls for the adoption of agricultural technologies that are resistant to climate change and recommends five techniques to solve the problem of food shortages. These include: more greenhouses, growing crops in multilevel buildings within cities, aquaculture for fish farming, making meat in laboratories from animal cells and algae production as a source of protein.

The report further focuses on advanced technology to increase production as the primary solution to the problem of food security, at a time of growing fears of the impact of climate change on agriculture. Manufacturers of genetically modified seeds have adopted prior assumptions to promote their products. They are also placing a high price on their "climate-ready" seeds, after securing protection through exclusive patents.

The most important of these presuppositions is that climate change causes hunger, and that increased production is necessary to fight hunger, which requires the adoption of biotechnologies. This calls for huge investments from the private sector that needs incentives, mainly in the form of patent protection. Patents give companies, mostly multinationals, exclusive rights over modified seeds and other food-production methods.

But climate change is not the only cause of hunger. It is preceded by poor distribution of food resources among different regions, food waste in different phases of the chain, and inefficiency.

Therefore, increased production is not necessarily the primary solution in all cases, and certainly cannot be the only one. Additionally, restricting patents to climate-resistant seeds to a limited number of large companies gives them the right to control the global food market. Control of international companies will thus increase, and other solutions, which are readily available, easier and cheaper, will be neglected.

Food security cannot be achieved by placing the destiny of poor countries in the hands of companies that impose their conditions and set their own price tags. To avoid this fate, countries must come up with other measures, including efficient production, waste reduction and modification of consumption patterns.

In the Arab region, food security is an issue of exceptional importance. Despite the region's continued quest for a higher level of self-sufficiency in food, achieving this goal remains elusive. In addition to the scarcity of arable land and water resources, Arab countries have not yet been able to use their agricultural potential effectively and efficiently.

Poor agricultural policies and practices have reduced the ability of natural resources and services to regenerate, threatening the sustainability of agricultural production. The problem is exacerbated by the weakness of regional cooperation among Arab countries, which should be based on utilizing comparative advantages. Cooperation is also essential for international trade, as negotiating as a group brings added benefits to all. According to an executive at a leading Arab economic institution, prices paid by different countries for crops like wheat and rice, imported from the same source, might vary by 50 percent. Such discrepancies would be resolved if countries opt to negotiate as one trading block.

The global food crisis and the unprecedented rise in food prices during the last decade, coupled by the export restrictions imposed by some wheat-producing countries in 2010, have renewed the call for providing safe sources for countries largely dependent on imports, as is the case of the Arab region. The pressing questions remain: To what extent can the available agricultural resources at the local and regional levels meet the demand for food in the Arab world? What are the chances of achieving food sufficiency, taking into account the rapid increase in population and the impact of climate change on land and water resources? And, in short, what alternative options do Arab countries have to achieve food security?

An integrated and inclusive regional approach, recognizing the interrelationship between the food, water and energy nexus, is needed, with a new model of agricultural sustainability based on economic, social and environmental considerations. Foremost is enhancing irrigation efficiency, knowing that the average in 19 Arab countries is below 46 percent. It is estimated that raising this figure to 70 percent would save 50 billion cubic meters of water annually, enough to produce more than 30 million tons of grain, or 45 percent of total grain imports. Grain productivity, which in most Arab countries is less than one-third of the global average, can also be enhanced. It is equally essential to treat wastewater, which is still largely untapped in agricultural use across Arab countries.

Although the Arab region is a net importer of food, with dwindling natural resources and fast-growing population, a report on food security by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development concluded with a positive note. It asserted that the gloomy situation of food production can be reversed through a combination of measures, mainly increasing land productivity and irrigation efficiency, which are now far below the world average in most Arab countries. It is imperative to combine those measures with serious regional cooperation that explores comparative advantages, in a region characterized by stark variations in ecological footprint, natural resources and income.

Achieving this, while still maintaining biodiversity and healthy environmental systems, would also require a radical shift in consumption patterns. The starting point is reducing food waste and switching to alternative types of food, which are highly nutritious and require less water and land. Less meat in the diet is one option, which needs to be supplemented by more radical changes, such as shifting away from meals based on water-consuming rice to more water-efficient crops. This is cheaper and safer than depending on climate-ready rice, offered by greedy multinationals. Mechanisms for regional Arab economic integration should also be adopted, whereas the free movement of goods, capital and people brings great benefits to all countries, including attaining food security.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 27, 2019, on page 6.



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ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
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