As the Middle East enters the 1990s, the food situation cannot be easily captured in catch phrases like “dire emergency.” Outside of the Horn of Africa, no country confronts wide-scale starvation, though poor people throughout the region face personal food emergencies daily.

Agricultural production continues to grow at a respectable rate — often better than the world average — in most of the region. Many countries have increased average daily calorie supply per person to levels equal to or better than the industrialized West. Where 22 percent of the population (35 million people) were undernourished in 1969-1970, this had dropped to 11 percent (26 million people) in 1983-1985, a ratio that compares favorably with other parts of the Third World.

The Right to Food

This proportion and number would be sharply higher, though, if we include countries on the periphery of the region, such as Ethiopia and Afghanistan. Statistical averages, moreover, conceal significant disparities. People go hungry not because there is not enough food, but because they do not have the resources and/or political clout to procure their share of it. There are millions of such people in the Middle East. No region in the world has wider income disparities between countries, and income distribution within many countries is quite skewed as well. Precisely the rural areas where food is produced are where the largest numbers of poor struggle to survive.

At one level, then, the food crisis in the Middle East is a crisis of equity. The “food riots” that punctuated the 1980s in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan were primarily fueled by the resentment of poorer classes that they should assume an unfair share of the costs of austerity, and this certainly seems to have been the case in Jordan and Algeria most recently.

The fact that these eruptions raised slogans and symbols of food was not haphazard or coincidental. There is an underlying structural problem of food availability in the Middle East. The region’s farmers are producing more food than ever before, but the numbers of people who eat that food are growing at an even faster rate. And consumption per capita has increased as well, fueled by the growth of the region’s “oil economy” in the 1970s and early 1980s.

When oil wealth was flowing freely, when even the poorer countries could send workers to oil-rich states and reap some of the benefits of the boom, governments bridged the food gap by purchasing food on the international market. The terms of trade shifted in the oil-producing countries’ favor: In 1970, a barrel of oil bought only one bushel of wheat; by 1980, one barrel bought six bushels. In 1960, the region was a net exporter of food; by 1974 the Middle East imported more than $1 billion in food; by 1981, the region was buying nearly 40 percent of all food imports to the Third World; today several countries in the region each import more than $1 billion in food each year.

A few oil-rich governments, alarmed at their dependence on foreign food, pursued an equally costly and in some ways more risky approach to closing the food gap: increasing local production through heavy agricultural subsidies. Saudi Arabia was able to increase its wheat production to the point where it actually exports a small amount — but it had to pay its farmers five to six times the world market price and deplete scarce non-renewable water resources to achieve “self-sufficiency.”

Land and Water

The Middle East will likely remain the least food self-sufficient region in the world. One reason is physical geography: In many countries additional arable land and renewable water resources are scarce.

In past decades, it has been possible to increase food production by expanding the amount of land sown to crops. But the limits are fast approaching. Extension of farming to marginal lands, combined with intensified cultivation techniques, risks environmental degradation. Expensive land reclamation projects are offset by encroaching deserts, on the one hand, and loss of farm land for urban uses, on the other.

Greater use of fertilizers and higher-yielding varieties of grain — the “green revolution” — can achieve greater productivity. But even if every other factor suddenly — implausibly — shifted in their favor, most Middle East farmers would still be at the mercy of the rains which are the only source of moisture for 70 percent of all their fields. Grain yields fluctuate wildly from year to year, depending on whether and when the rains come. Tunisia is now facing its third consecutive year of low wheat and barley yields; Algeria and Morocco also expect low yields this year. Droughts have exacerbated recurring famines in Ethiopia and Sudan.

Irrigation projects in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere have added to productive capacity, and in many countries further expansion of irrigated croplands is possible. Improved irrigation techniques to reduce wastage and to reuse water can also help. Irrigation projects, though, are often expensive, and may be intended more to establish sovereign claims over rivers and aquifers than to maximize regional productivity. Even more than oil, water looms as the most contested resource in the region. Turkey’s vast Southeastern Anatolia irrigation scheme threatens to cost Syria 40 percent and Iraq 90 percent of their current Euphrates River flow. Egypt is concerned about an Ethiopian dam project that may affect its Nile resources. And Israel derives 40 percent of its fresh water from aquifers beneath the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Policy Failures

Given the limits imposed by physical geography, how can governments ensure that people will have enough to eat? The dilemmas involve internal as well as international politics. The influx of oil revenues and remittances have affected land use and employment structures in ways that have undermined agricultural productivity. Resources were squandered. Workers left major agricultural countries for jobs in the oil producing countries, intensifying rural-urban migration trends.

Middle Eastern regimes have displayed a persistent urban bias. Not only have investment patterns favored industry and urban infrastructure over agriculture and rural projects, but many governments heavily tax the agricultural sector to finance state expenditures. These expenditures went to keep food prices (and thus wages) down for urban consumers rather than to increase agricultural income. Turkey and Syria, the two countries in the region that have favored the agricultural sector, have also shown the best performance in terms of production.

Landholding in most countries of the region is highly unequal — Turkey again is a notable exception — and the recent period has included no serious land reform efforts. In Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, earlier efforts at redistribution gave way to “privatization” and reconsolidation of holdings. Expenditures on agricultural investment, notably input subsidies (including irrigation and livestock feed) and promotion of specialty export crops, have mainly benefited larger and better-off landholders.

Politics of Austerity

Payment for the domestic policy failures of the past two decades has now come due. Oil-rich countries have sent “guest workers” back home without jobs or income. Poorer countries find themselves without an adequate agricultural base and with reduced means to purchase food security on the international market. In North Africa, declines in phosphate earnings and remittances from workers in Europe, as well as oil and gas earnings, paralleled the patterns in the rest of the region, but were compounded by declining domestic food production caused by bad weather.

These poorer countries, then, were squeezed from two sides: by the need to import more food and by burgeoning payments for debts incurred in the past. Debt ratios for Middle Eastern countries — the amount that must be paid in principal and interest as a proportion of gross national product — stand at about 70 percent in 1990, higher than for any other part of the Third World except sub-Saharan Africa.

The problem is that commercial banks and even the World Bank will no longer loan to heavily indebted countries unless those countries acquire a “seal of financial approval” from the institution of last resort: the International Monetary Fund. This approval has a price.

The IMF approves new lending only after governments agree to make economic changes referred to as “structural adjustment” programs. Commonly, these include severe cutbacks in government welfare programs; elimination of trade barriers; currency devaluation; elimination of price controls and subsidies on staple goods; increasing interest rates and imposing wage controls. The idea is that poor countries will earn more from their exports and spend less domestically, and so be better able to repay debts and at the same time pay for needed imports.

The consequences for food security are often negative. For one thing, higher interest rates can actually reduce economic activity, affecting family incomes required to secure sufficient food.

The IMF, along with the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development, put much of the blame for poor agricultural performance on the distorting effects of government price policies. Using their leverage in the form of loans and influence over debt rescheduling, they have insisted on decontrol of prices and elimination of subsidies, asserting that this gives farmers greater incentive to produce and reduces waste.

There are several problems with this free-market doctrine. First, neither national governments nor the IMF are particularly responsive to the needs of the poor, for whom food subsidies represent a major share of household budgets. Egypt has been attempting for most of the last decade to reduce food subsidies and raise prices of staple goods in its effort to secure new loans. It is true that the expenditures on food subsidies under Sadat and Mubarak could have been used more productively for other purposes, but whether they would have been remains an open question. The issue of subsidies needs to be addressed as part of a program of social security, in the broadest sense of that term. Second, the benefits of higher prices are often absorbed not by peasants but by agricultural marketing monopolists. In Egypt, in May 1985, the Ministry of Supply canceled price controls on fruits and vegetables. Prices soared in the wholesale market of Rawd al-Farag — prices set by the five families who controlled the market (dubbed “the lords of Rawd al-Farag” by the press). Popular outrage forced the government to restore price controls. The lesson is not that controls are desirable, but simply eliminating them will not necessarily benefit the producers nor improve agricultural productivity.

Thirdly, the wider package of IMF policy recommendations also eliminates subsidies for seeds, fertilizers and machinery, making them even less affordable for poorer farmers. Most of the productivity strategies work to the benefit of the well-off farmers.

Fourthly, the free-market doctrine assumes that poor countries will be able to repay their debts out of new export earnings. Since Middle Eastern peasants cannot produce wheat as cheaply as US or Canadian producers, the IMF urges them to focus on fruits, vegetables and exotic plants for export to Europe and other industrialized markets. Once again, it is chiefly the better-off farmers who have access to the water and the investment capital required to produce high-value crops.

Even if these reforms do lead to growth in agricultural productivity and output, it does not follow that the export markets will be there for earning the foreign exchange needed to import wheat, rice and other basic foodstuffs. The rich countries of the North impose protectionist policies of their own against each other’s food and commodity exports, and are even less disposed to those of the Third World. The “California strategy” of Egypt and Morocco to sell in Europe competes against the export strategies of Spain and other southern European producers now being brought in to the Common Market.

Development Dilemma

The dilemma posed by the region’s “food security” problem is this: The policy reforms urged by the international lenders may increase productivity, at least for a time, but at the cost of greater hardship for the mass of the population. The current phase of austerity promises to be protracted and intense, with implications for political stability and any possibility of democratic openings.

The threat posed by the austerity environment to both urban and rural poor highlights the need for strategies of equitable growth. Alan Richards proposes that reforms that reduce subsidies should be coupled with reforms that increase taxes to fund investment and social welfare programs. He cites an estimate that Morocco’s entire food subsidy bill could be covered by a 9 percent tax on the income of large landholders in irrigated areas. Yet calls for subsidy cuts are not usually paired with demands for tax increases. Perhaps this is based on a sophisticated assessment of the balance of political forces in Morocco (or Egypt or other countries). It suggests that the welfare of the people of the region is not the top priority of the international aid agencies.

What the dilemma comes down to is this: Hunger is a function of poverty, not food availability. There should be a priority on increasing production and self-sufficiency, to the extent that these priorities will help make food more accessible and less expensive. The more fundamental challenge is to combine efforts to increase productivity with radically different patterns of access to productive assets — land and water as well as technology — and distribution of social wealth.

Sources: Alan Richards and John Waterbury, A Political Economy of the Middle East (Westview, 1990), ch. 6; Alan Richards, ed., Food, States and Peasants: Analyses of the Agrarian Question in the Middle East (Westview, 1986); Peter Oram, Prospects for Agricultural Production and Food Deficits in West Asia and North Africa (International Food Policy Research Institute, April 1988); Third World Food Markets (IFPRI, October 1988); Food and Agriculture Organization, The State of Food and Agriculture, 1989; World Resources, 1990-1991 (World Resources Institute, 1990); World Bank, World Development Report, 1990; UN Development Program, Human Development Report, 1990; Colbert C. Held, Middle East Patterns (Westview, 1989); World Bank, World Debt Tables, 1989-1990; Middle East Economic Digest, April 23, 1990; Funding Ecological and Social Destruction: The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (The Bank Information Center, 1989); “Banking on Poverty,” Multinational Monitor (April 1990); FAO, Food Outlook (May 1990); Yahya Sadowski, Political Vegetables: The Politics of Agricultural Development in Egypt (Brookings, 1990).

Authors’ Note: We would like to thank Yahya Sadowski, Bill Rau, Jean-Jacques Dethier and John Cavanagh for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this text. Responsibility for the final version rests with the authors.

How to cite this article:

Martha Wenger, Joe Stork "Primer: The Food Gap in the Middle East," Middle East Report 166 (September/October 1990).
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