The Political Economy of Arab Food Serenity

Jane Harrigan

A political economy analysis of the history of food security in the Arab world, including the role played by the global food price crisis in the Arab Spring and the Arab response aiming at greater food sovereignty via domestic food production and land acquisition overseas – the so-called land grab
Three recent phenomena serve as the background to this book: the global food price crises of 2007–08 and 2010–11, the Arab Spring, and the growing practice of foreign land acquisition, sometimes referred to as ‘land grab’, whereby richer food-scarce countries acquire land in poorer, land-abundant countries to directly source their food needs. This book argues that these three phenomena are intimately linked and are part of the new political economy of food in the Arab region, one whereby Arab states are developing a new approach to food security which we have called macro food sovereignty. As pointed out by Zurayk (2012, p. 19), food politics and its relationship to power is of crucial importance to the Arab region yet remains under-studied. This book hopes to help fill that gap by providing a political economy analysis of food security and food sovereignty in the Arab world.
The Food Security Status of Arab Countries
The Arab states are often viewed as one of the most potentially food insecure regions in the world (Breisinger et al. 2010, 201 la, 2012; Wilson and Bruins 2005; World Bank 2009a). This view is based on the fact that they have the largest food deficit of any region in the world, as indicated by cereal imports as a proportion of consumption. Most Arab countries import around 25–50 per cent of their food requirements, with around 35 per cent of daily calories in the region coming from wheat alone. The region’s cereal imports as a percentage of total consumption is between 40 and 50 per cent and in some countries, such as Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Palestine, reaches 70 per cent (ESCWA 2010, p. 1). Food imports are the largest share of imported products in the region, representing between 11 and 34 per cent of total goods imported by Arab states (Zurayk 2012, p. 21) with the regional food import bill being around 5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The Evolution of Food Security Strategies in the Arab World
Many accounts of the agricultural potential of the Arab world and assessments of the region’s food security begin by reminding the reader that this was the region where 10 millennia ago farming first began and where most of the important domesticated crop and animal species originated — wheat, barley lentils, chickpeas, olives, grapes, goats, and sheep. In addition, the region is a major producer of oil and phosphorous, key inputs to modern food production. Historically Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq were known as the countries of the Fertile Crescent, and other countries around the Nile Delta were also major food producers. Yet, paradoxically, the region now imports around 50 per cent of its food requirements (Zurayk 2012, p. 18). Previously fertile countries, especially those benefiting from the Nile and its delta, such as Egypt and Sudan, now face problems in terms of food production.
Causes of the Global Food Crisis and Its Impact on the Arab World
Chapter 1 illustrated the magnitude of the global food crisis in the form of escalating prices in 2007–08 and 2010–11 (Figure 1.1 in Chapter 1). We also argued in Chapter 1 that the structural causes underpinning this crisis are likely to persist such that high and volatile food prices will continue. Figure 1.1 in Chapter 1, was based on a composite price index. The FAO food price index is a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities. It consists of the average of five commodity group price indices (representing 55 quotations), weighted with the average export shares of each of the groups for 2002–04. Figures 4.1 through 4.5 show the price trends for the five commodity groups that constitute the index. As can be seen, the commodity groups showed sharp price increases in 2007–08 and 2011, although the increase was less pronounced for the meat price index .
The Arab Response to the Global Food Crisis
We have argued in the previous chapter that the global food crisis had a profound effect on the Arab countries in economic, social, and political terms. Arab governments have responded to this crisis with a variety of short-term measures and in many cases also with a more fundamental reappraisal of their food security strategies. The short-term responses have largely involved the introduction of a number of government interventions in the attempt to mitigate the adverse socioeconomic impact of rising food prices, whilst the longer-term responses have included a new emphasis on more domestic food production and programmes to acquire land in third-party countries

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