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 .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
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.

Harrigan clarifies her understanding of food sovereignty in the introduction. For Harrigan, ‘the conventional definition of food sovereignty is largely a micro-level definition … [and] focuses on control and agency at the individual and local level’ .
The book’s purported aim is to contribute to the scalar dimension of food sovereignty debates by focusing on a concept of food sovereignty that is ‘applicable at the level of the nation-state’ (Harrigan
2014, 12, 14). In this context, Harrigan’s ‘macro perspective’ of food sovereignty directs attention to the various strategies of Arab nation-states seeking secure access to food, which is the topic of chapters three, five and six.
Harrigan traces changes in Arab countries’ food policy over time and argues that it shifted from an early trade-based policy to a policy of promoting self-sufficiency. Drawing on case studies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Harrigan equates ‘food sovereignty’ with a drive for self-sufficiency and concludes that a quest for food sovereignty
through policies of self-sufficiency would be costly, both environmentally and financially. She further notes that such food self-sufficiency policies have recently included a ‘new emphasis on domestic production combined with land acquisition overseas’ and identifies the inherent contradiction of overseas land acquisition policies in the name of ‘ food sovereign at the macro – level . Ac cordingly, for Harrigan any future ‘ food security or sovereign ty’ policy would require a ‘ multi-faceted approach’ , ‘ combining imports, domestic production, and land acquisition overseas at the macro-level, with adequate social safety net programmes and pro-poor growth at the micro-level’.
From a policy perspective, a degree of pragmatism is certainly warranted. Arab countries may need to employ a variety of policy tools in order to mitigate food insecurity. Conceptually too, the meanings attributed to food security and food sovereignty may overlap (see
Edelman 2014), but for the purposes of the book the substitution of food sovereignty with self-sufficiency and the interchangeable use of food security and food sovereignty are confusing and fundamentally undermine the analytical clarity of the book.
Chapter seven focuses on Arab integration into global food markets and largely follows the structure – while seeking to build on it – of a report on improving food security in Arab countries published by the World Bank, FAO and IFAD (2009). AQ6
The final chapter focuses on the improvement of social safety nets. Citing international governance reports, it argues that existing regional subsidy systems – often covering food and fuel – are too costly and need to be phased out. For such a development to be politically possible, social safety nets would need to be improved. In this context, the chapter explores the possibilities for making safety nets more efficient through direct cash transfers, public work schemes and nutrition programmes.
By examining a region that is underrepresented in the literature, the Political economy of Arab food sovereignty is a welcome addition to scholarship on food security. But the equation – or conflation – through the book of food security with food sovereignty points to its main limitation. The book conceives of food sovereignty very narrowly in away that does not reflect the state of current scholarly debate, and that reinforces the conventional understandings of market-based food security, which the concept of food sovereignty was meant to replace. Moreover, few scholars of food sovereignty would impose a strict separation between food sovereignty at the micro-, macro- or global levels.
Today, it is very difficult to conceive of any aspect of the food system existing in isolation, and scholars of food sovereignty are keenly aware of the interlinkages between different scales. Conceiving of food sovereignty only through the lens of self-sufficiency policies of some Gulf countries in the 1970s, Harrigan reinforces the idea that food sovereignty is a call for strict autarky.
By adopting a limited conception of food sovereignty, the book echoes the thematic concerns of conventional market-based food security, leading to a number of contradictions between the book’s title and its topic matter. In the conclusion for example, it is argued with specific reference to Jordan – that the lead for food security and food sovereignty strategies is best located ‘ at the highest level of gove rnment, such as the prime minister, president, or king’ s office, with a coordinating role over a multi-institution al approach’.
Advocacy for a top-down approach is not only in direct contrast
to what the food sovereignty movement calls for, it is also of questionable feasibility with regard to the case study mentioned. In Jordan, the frequent changes of the office of ministers and an associated lack of long-term vision are often cited as impeding sustainable policy-making in a variety of fields, including food security. A top-down approach would encounter the same problem. The remainder of the conclusion stresses the importance of ‘pro poor growth’ and, drawing on a World Bank publication, implies that
‘switching out of staples into high-value crops for export should be the top agricultural priority for the Arab states’ (Harrigan 2014, 223–24). It is precisely the privileging of such economic logics as comparative advantage and producing staples for export that the global food sovereignty agenda takes issue with.
The book’s focus on integrating into global markets contrasts with a food sovereignty programme that calls for limiting the reach of global capital. Implicitly, the author argues that food sovereignty is not feasible in the Arab region and that conventional market-based
food security is the way forward.
Politically, such a position is problematic because reliance on global market-based food security is often in the interests of elites. As war, occupation and authoritarianism endure within the region, the links between conventional market based approaches to food security and the political projects they support ought not to be reproduced uncritically. Additionally, the argument that food sovereignty is impossible is
of theoretical interest because at present the region is amongst the most food import-dependent in the world. How may food sovereignty be conceived of – if at all? – in highly food import-dependent countries, where agriculture is limited? Is food sovereignty impossible in
the context of extreme dependency on international trade? This question remains a relative lacuna in food sovereignty thinking. But such a broader analysis is underdeveloped in Harrigan’s book, in part because a significant portion of it takes on a literature review style that collects and combines arguments in ways suggesting the authority of one view over another, but without explicitly articulating a perspective. An example is the heavy reliance on Zurayk’s – otherwise very valuable – work for large topical sections of the book.
Overall, The political economy of Arab food sovereignty provides a comprehensive introduction to the range of topics that are most commonly discussed in the institutional literature on Arab food security. As discussed above, however, a close reading of the
book suggests a contradiction between the book’s title and its content, which emerges through the conceptual outlook of the individual chapters and arguably culminates in the book’s final pages. That said, this should not deter the critical reader. The book offers a
wealth of information regarding current Western thinking on Arab food security. A thorough understanding of the message it conveys will benefit any scholar of the politics of food seeking to recognize the real obstacles to Arab food security and sovereignty

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