By Naava Mashiah
GENEVA: The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is facing hard times as it struggles with a growing food security crisis.
Food security has been in the headlines since 2008, due to the rise of oil prices and a growing demand for certain crops by alternative energy producers, which, in turn, have driven up food prices. The steep price hikes triggered mass protests and unrest in some countries, while straining government budgets as food subsidy costs soared in others.
With limited arable land, restricted water supplies and growing populations, food security and the price of commodities will become an increasingly important economic and political issue in the MENA region. The challenge for governments in the region is to come up with economic policies that place domestic agricultural industries at the heart of sustainable development.
In these circumstances, the lack of cooperation between Israel and its neighbors is a lose-lose situation for everyone. Israel has been spearheading research and innovation to overcome a harsh climate and water scarcity. But there is very little knowledge sharing between Israel and other countries in the MENA region. Although food security would best be addressed in the framework of a regional peace, the absence of such peace between Israel and its neighbors should not get in the way of cooperation on this issue, given how critical the situation facing the region is.
Being one of the world’s largest net importers of food items and per capita consumers of wheat, the MENA region is especially vulnerable to food price shocks. Today, the Arab world imports 50 per cent of its food requirements – set to rise to 64 per cent in the next decade. Although there is limited arable land and water supply (with many MENA countries falling below the UN standard for water poverty), the countries of the region must find a way to become more self-sufficient and independent of the volatilities of the global economy.
Today, there is an increased awareness of the risks of food scarcity to this already unstable region and it is becoming clear that there should be more cooperation between Israel and MENA countries in this area.
Recently, several MENA countries have been taking a closer look at alternative sourcing strategies as part of their comprehensive food security policies. Qatar has established the Qatar National Food Security Program, which focuses on self-sufficiency by increasing food production at home rather than relying on imports. Abu Dhabi has initiated the Abu Dhabi Food Security Committee which is looking at ways to maximize self-sufficiency, strengthen safety nets and enhance food supply by increasing productivity growth through greater investment in Research and Development (R&D). It aims to reduce exposure to market volatility by improving supply chain efficiency.
Israel has already gained an international reputation for innovation in crop yield and qualities, and developing new seed and plant varieties. These crops are grown in semi-arid soil and seeds are acclimatized for the particular region. Additional innovations include drip irrigation methods and dew collectors, which utilize irrigation water sparingly in specific locations. These technologies are crucial for all the countries in the region. Should we not create a pool of agricultural and water technology innovations accessible to all MENA countries?
Arab countries currently receive less funding on average for R&D than many other countries because governments have not begun to prioritize this field and remain dependent on imports. Increasing productivity requires investment in research and technology transfer.
Israel, for its part, has made much progress in crop yields, green houses technologies, seed acclimatization, drip irrigation, dew collectors, waste-water management and other unique water technology innovations. Shouldn’t the successful results of high crop yields in arid climates be shared amongst other countries in the region?
Indeed, Abu Dhabi and Qatar have the resources to lead the R&D drive to benefit the region’s people by pooling leading technologies gained through the commercial arms of universities, including universities in Israel. When knowledge is shared it can benefit all countries.
Time is a big factor. R&D investment is time consuming and starting research from scratch is not the same as benefitting from previous discoveries. Denationalizing technologies and sharing knowledge is the way forward. The sooner we realize this, the better we can deal with the urgent challenge that all countries of this region share.
Naava Mashiah is CEO of M.E. Links, Senior Consultant at ISHRA and Editor of MEDABIZ economic news. Eldad Ben Gal, an agronomist based in Israel, contributed to this article. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). www.commongroundnews.org.