Food security has become a hot topic in the Middle East, and with good reason: the states of the region face a terrible mixture of economic, environmental and political obstacles in feeding their people. At a recent conference on the subject in Rome, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that more than 11 percent of the region’s population, or 79.4 million people, were undernourished. On the other side of the spectrum, the FAO reported that nearly a quarter of the region’s population were obese.
Too many people aren’t getting enough to eat, some are eating too much, and the food that is available is often of disastrous nutritional quality. The prospect of securing more food for an exploding population amid rising temperatures, water scarcity and relentless political instability seems daunting. But it needn’t be.
Growing your own
In 2010, when twenty-six-year-old Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi tragically set himself on fire after a municipal officer confiscated his cart and electronic scales, he unwittingly brought the issue of food security in the Middle East to international attention. Thousands of Tunisians subsequently took to the streets to protest against corruption, high food prices and other social ills, sparking the revolution that saw longtime President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali ousted from power.
Three years on, Tunisian MP Mabrouka M’Barek blames the failure to improve the situation on the neoliberal economic policy pursued by the Tunisian government under international pressure. “The major issue is that the post-revolution instability and the spiral of debt does not allow Tunisia to take a sovereign decision on reconsidering completely its economic strategy,” she tells The Majalla.
“The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank tie loans to liberal conditions such as decreasing taxes on companies, removing subsidies, establishing a free market, eliminating barriers,” with the result that food prices have actually risen since the 2011 revolution and the food basket has eroded, she says.
This leads M’Barek to distinguish between “food security” and “food sovereignty.” She says: “Food security is providing food regardless of origin, and Tunisia is actually at that stage, providing essential produce from the global market. Food sovereignty, on the other hand, means that food is produced locally, there is no reliance on the foreign market and [there is] a better control of needs.”
To some extent, Tunisia’s problems reflect worrying trends throughout the MENA region as a whole. Data from the Arab Agriculture Statistics Yearbook shows that in 2010, fifteen out of twenty Arab countries imported 60 percent or more of their grain from abroad—making their poorest citizens vulnerable to fluctuation in price and supply.
“Tunisia is importing wheat from Italy, milk from Slovenia, meat from Spain and even potatoes,” M’Barek explains, with some exasperation. “These could be easily produced locally, saving Tunisia [foreign] currencies, and creating local jobs in interior regions.”
In order to grow food, however, it is necessary to have water—a resource that cannot be taken for granted in the Middle East. But Tunisia isn’t making the most of its water resources. In 2011, advocacy group Carboun released an infographic that compared the amount of water that various Middle Eastern countries extracted, with what was available to them; it showed Tunisia was extracting just 54 percent of its available resources. And in 2013, the journal Geophysical Research Letters claimed that the Sahara aquifer system, commonly thought to consist only of precious fossil water, actually recharges at a rate of up to 0.26 inches (6.5 millimeters) per year, providing what M’Barek believes is sufficient water to revolutionize Tunisia’s food sovereignty, a revolution she says the Tunisian people are ready for.
“Based on my interactions and field visits I have noticed that the majority of Tunisians are ready to go back to rural areas to develop agriculture if the government were to help them [with machinery, access to property, etc.],” she says.
Rich and hungry
It is not just countries facing severe economic problems, such as Tunisia, that have problems with their food supply. It is commonly thought that wealthy nations are more food secure than poorer countries, but the reality of the situation is far more complicated.
“In general, the richer a country is, the less food insecurity it faces,” says Clemens Breisinger, head of the International Food Policy Research Institute’s MENA team. “But while oil-exporting companies like Libya and Algeria may not have an issue with national food security, household level food insecurity is still relatively high.”
Meanwhile, many of the wealthiest countries in the region are forced to use up their own energy resources to desalinize water, threatening export earnings and creating a false sense of security. Few are as frank about the challenges that Gulf countries face as Fayad Al-Attiya, Chairman of the Qatar National Food Security Programme that was set up in 2008 to overhaul the country’s food system.
“This is the situation in Qatar for those who don’t know: we only have two days of water reserves. We import 90 percent of our food, and we only cultivate less than 1 percent of our land,” he said during a speech at a TEDx summit in Doha in 2012.
“The limited number of farmers . . . [in Qatar] have been pushed out of their farming practices as a result of open-market policy,” Attiya added. “These risks directly affect the sustainability of this nation and its continuity.”
Eckart Woertz, a senior researcher at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs and author of Oil for Food, admits that richer countries have the ability to buy their way out of food insecurity, but only “as long as world markets stay open and there are no export restrictions by agro exporters [as there were] during the global food crisis of 2008.”
Woertz urges Gulf countries to engage more actively with the global food system, and to foster local farming systems as a means of strengthening resilience in the face of looming challenges.
Putting aside the discussion of “land grabs” for another story, farming in the MENA region—once so idyllically fertile and bountiful in places—has traditionally occurred outside of the city in large pastoral plots surrounded by exquisite countryside. Sadly, this world is mostly gone. That is to say, it is not a realistic vision for the great majority of people, who can no longer afford land to cultivate, while much land that remains is no longer suitable for farming.
Rural areas all over the MENA region are deeply polluted, since virtually no environmental controls have been implemented anywhere to limit the kind or quantity of chemicals and other toxins that enter the soil or the underground water supply.
Inside, and up
Since people’s capacity to grow food on their own lands is so severely limited, they have begun to seek innovative new ways to get the job done. The UN Habitat Program’s biannual State of the World’s Cities report shows that people are flocking to cities at unprecedented rates. By 2030, nine Middle Eastern countries will be more than 90 percent urban, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Such rapid urbanization puts great strain on natural resources and outdated infrastructure. But in order to arrest the threat of widespread starvation and greater social turbulence, individuals, communities and nations have to start considering a new agricultural paradigm—one that plans for and embraces urban expansion.
Dickson Despommier, a microbiologist, ecologist and professor of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University, is the father of a growing agriculture movement known as “vertical farming.” In his twenty-ninth year as a parasitologist, Despommier failed to secure additional funding for his work. So he started teaching “Ecology 101.” He tells The Majalla he depressed his students so much by bombarding them with negative facts about the Earth’s health, that he was compelled to find solutions just to cheer them up. Someone suggested growing food on city rooftops.
But the students conducted their research and discovered to their dismay that New York City would not be able to feed all its inhabitants with rooftop farming alone.
Despommier asked: “What if you took the idea from the roof into the building?” The students, stunned at the simplicity of his proposal, asked
“Can you do that?” He replied: “You can grow anything indoors. Nothing is impossible.” Thus the vertical farming movement was born.
“In 2003, if you searched for vertical farming on the Internet, there would have been no hits,” says Despommier. “Today, just over ten years later, there are forty-eight million vertical farming hits.”
The concept involves the urbanization of agriculture by constructing indoor farms in skyscraper-like structures that make use of liquid and solid waste as fuel and fertilizer.
News soon spread that it was possible to grow food in large, small, dense or sprawling cities twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year without using any pesticides or fertilizers. And now vertical farms are popping up all over the world—in Japan, Singapore, China and the American Midwest, where water shortages during times of drought threaten the country’s corn basket.
Despommier says that indoor hydroponic farms require 70-percent less water than conventional outdoor farms, due in part to the absence of evaporation indoors, while aeroponic farms use just 70 percent of what hydroponic farms use—a breathtaking reduction. Whatever water is used can be recycled, pests are eliminated from the equation and any crop can be grown, including leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, corn and wheat.
Having visited Jordan, Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi, the seventy-four-year-old author of The Vertical Farm is convinced that urban vertical farming should play a major role in the Middle East’s future—especially as climate change threatens to alter the global agriculture landscape.
“Qatar has all the money in the world,” says Despommier. “Why don’t they just do it?”