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Regional Cooperation to Bridge Food Deficit


Regional Cooperation to Bridge Food Deficit

Najib Saab

Rio de Janeiro, 19/6/2012

Arab demand on natural resources (footprint) amounts to more than twice what is available locally (biocapacity). This disparity, particularly signified by food deficit, is largely bridged by imports financed by oil exports, a model which is not sustainable, taking into account the increasing prices of biocapacity imports and the eventual depletion of non-renewable energy resources.

In view of the current precarious state of agriculture, the increasing scarcity of water, and the likely impact of climate change, Arab countries face daunting challenges. This demands a new green revolution, capable of establishing and maintaining a balance between agricultural biocapacity and footprint.

Food security is not necessarily synonymous with food self-sufficiency, especially at a country level where any chance of achieving self-sufficiency will be at the cost of depleting non-renewable resources. Taking into account that Arab countries have great variabilities in ecological footprint, biocapacity and income, bridging the deficit between biocapacity and footprint and achieving sustainable well-being demand regional cooperation based on comparative advantage in agricultural resources. The AFED report on ecological footprint in Arab countries, to be released in November 2012, provides a detailed account of resources and consumption, and prescribes regional cooperation as the prime option for survival. 

Allow me to share with you the first results of the Arab region's ecological footprint assessment, which are critical for understanding the region's competitive advantages and disadvantages:

  • The average ecological footprint per capita in Arab countries increased by 78 per cent from 1.2 to 2.1 global hectares (gha) per capita over the past 50 years.
  • The available average biocapacity per capita in Arab countries decreased by 60 per cent from 2.2 to 0.9 gha per capita.
  • The average resident in Arab countries demands more than twice what is available locally.
  • If all humans lived like the average resident of Qatar, 6.6 planets would be required to satisfy this level of consumption and emissions of carbon dioxide. By contrast, if everyone lived like an average Yemeni, humans would demand only half of planet Earth.
  • In 2008, only 4 nations contributed more than 50 per cent of the Arab region's ecological footprint: Egypt (19 per cent), Saudi Arabia (15 per cent), UAE (10 per cent), and Sudan (9 per cent).
  • Only 2 nations provided approximately 50 per cent of the biocapacity in the Arab region in 2008: Sudan (32 per cent) and Egypt (17 per cent).
  • Since 1979 the region as a whole has been experiencing a biocapacity deficit, with its demand for ecological services increasingly exceeding local supply. In order to bridge this gap, the import of ecological services from outside the region's borders has been necessary.


These findings indicate that the region has already approached an imbalance between domestic supply and demand for ecological services, placing a limit on future growth in well-being.

However, regional averages of the Arab states mask great internal disparity: The average resident of Qatar had the highest ecological footprint in the world (11.7 gha per capita), higher than the ecological footprint of the average Yemeni (0.9 gha per capita) by 13-fold. Additionally, biocapacity availability per person also varies greatly, with Sudan (2.3 gha per capita) having nearly 10 times that of Iraq or Jordan (0.2 gha per capita).

The huge gap between biocapacity and footprint is mostly reflected in food deficit, and subsequently food security. The blame cannot be solely placed on harsh environment and limited resources.  Decades of distortive state policies, negligence and misdirected investments have driven agriculture in the Arab region to its current precarious state. Agricultural strategies have lacked the integrated approach needed to promote development and alleviate poverty in rural areas, and foreign aid has largely benefited large landholders, estate agents, and multinationals, further marginalizing small and poor farmers.

Luckily, solutions are at hand, as shown in AFED's report on Green Economy in a Changing Arab World. It found that raising cereal productivity from its low level of 1,700 kg per hectare in six Arab countries (Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Sudan, and Syria) to the world average of 3,700 kg per hectare, coupled with an improved irrigation efficiency of about 70%, would increase the overall cereal production in these countries by 50 million tons, enough to offset the current 20 million tons shortage and even generate a surplus of about 30million tons in 2030.

 Research is an indispensable core activity for arriving at the optimal mix of inputs and discovering drought-resistant cultivars and salt-tolerant crops. New eco-agricultural methods, protective of soils, land, and water, such as organic and conservation farming, should be promoted and supported.


Globally, the market for organic produce has grown from US$15 billion in 1999 to US$55 billion in 2009. Organic agriculture provides more than 30% more jobs per hectare than traditional forms of agriculture. Promoting sustainable agriculture in Arab countries will generate new incomes for rural populations, while creating 10 million new jobs and opening a market niche for Arab agricultural products in international markets.


AFED report on Green Economy found that shifting to sustainable agricultural practices is expected to result in savings to Arab countries of between 5-6% of GDP as a result of increased water productivity, improved public health, and protected environmental resources, amounting to US$114 billion. In addition, revitalizing the agricultural sector through adequate investments and research and development should result in at least a 30% reduction in imports over the next five years, with saving amounting to US$45 billion, which certainly contributes to increased food security.


The Arab region has one of the greatest variations in ecological footprint, biocapacity, and income of any region in the world. In order to pursue sustainable well-being for all residents in the region, attention should be directed to achieving more regional economic integration and cooperation and towards more inter-Arab trade free of barriers, where the free flow of goods, capital, and people works to the benefit of all countries. In addition, difficult policy questions regarding population and consumption growth will also need to be addressed in the near future.

Statement by Najib Saab, AFED's Secretary General, at a roundtable at Rio+20, entitled "Food Security for Development in a Changing Arab World." The side event was organized by the League of Arab States, ESCWA, and the German International Cooperation Agency (GIZ), in cooperation with AFED. The Palestinian Minister of Environment Youssef Abu Safiyyeh also took part in the panel, along with Marco Marzano, President of World Farmers Organization and Carsten Hoffmann, Head of Trade at GIZ.





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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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