Monday, April 28, 2008

Challenges and promises

I forgot to add to my post of yesterday that one of the strategies the Jordanian government seems to be favoring is to encourage the Jordanian private sector to invest in wheat production in the Sudan. This is inline with what I had heard from a colleague about Saudi plans (see post of March 3) and revives a long lost dream of Arab food security. The minister of agriculture gave a speech yesterday on the occasion of the the oath-taking ceremony of the new agricultural engineers (why an oath?). He called for a strategy to address the increase in food prices. He also requested the passing of the legislation for the establishment of a Chamber of Agriculture, and of an agricultural marketing company and of an agricultural-risk management fund (all three are great ideas, but governments bulk at them, in Lebanon as in Jordan). He promised that the government will renew its vows to care for the farm sector, "the safety valve of food security". Promises, promises.

Al Hayat is a pan-arab, Saudi-funded newspaper. I don't often read it, but I made an exception today. The economy page is usually quite good, and it was today almost totally devoted to the food crisis. The economic analysis article was about GMOs in agriculture ("A solution or a problem?"), written by Michel Morcos. Nothing really new there, except perhaps a startling conclusion: "Did America create the food crisis to control world food supplies or to market the products of its industries?" I wouldn't have thought Al Hayat's editors would allow that.

There is also a report on the 30th General Assembly of the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development. I have never had much faith in the ability of Arab League-styled organizations to promote significant change, and any observer of Arab politics will know why. The first day of the assembly was the occasion for lots of good-will speeches, which -once again- identified the challenges facing Arab Agriculture: lack of data and information, no encouragement for investments in agriculture, limited water resources, delay in access to modern technologies, absence of integration between national and pan-Arab policies and plans (this is an important one), inefficiency of small farmer's organizations in supporting production and marketing initiatives, low competitiveness of Arab produce on international markets, poor rural livelihoods, limited arable land area, decline in the productivity of rainfed areas (related to climatic changes), fragmentation of holdings, poor animal-crop integration, limited access to locally produced animal feed, difficulties in obtaining financing, and limited marketing opportunities for small producers.

How do you want to work in these conditions? The Arab World is one of the most food insecure regions in the world, with the least biophysical and human potential. I believe it will be the hardest hit from the food crisis. Oil producing countries will be able to buy food, but what about the others?

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