People in the Arab region have long been hungry—for dignity, but also for food. Hunger is a social phenomenon: the “biological manifestation of underdevelopment,” in the words of Brazilian geographer Josué de Castro.[1] Underdevelopment is the reverse coin of development. Each are made by global class relations and tied to how social structure and state policies affect production and consumption. The Arab region, with the highest level of income inequality in the world, suffers from a massive gap  between the food that is produced and what is needed to feed the population. The area is the largest cereal importer on a per capita basis, and by far the world’s most import-dependent region—between 2011 and 2013 it relied on imports for around half of its cereal needs, three-quarters of its food oil needs and around two-thirds of its sugar needs.[2] Since the post-colonial period and especially the 1970s, the gap between food production and consumption needs has steadily widened—with some important exceptions, such as pre-2011 Syria.

The United States has left deep and lasting imprints on Arab rural society. Its policies have been and are still a critical force behind agricultural underdevelopment and, increasingly, de-development. Any effort to reimagine US foreign policy will have to ask what a just US food and agricultural policy in this arena would look like. In seeking to understand the open wounds US policy has inflicted on the Arab agrarian south and its hungry cities, it is important to start with how the Arab poor have articulated the agrarian question, then assess the US role in the history of rural underdevelopment and finally canvass regional intellectual history to learn how the United States could help, rather than hinder, rural development.

How have US policies helped produce hunger?[3] US trade policies are inseparable from US aid policies, which are central to US foreign policy. There are six key clusters of US policies, carried out since the post-colonial period, that have an impact on agriculture in the major Arab breadbasket regions, beginning with US efforts to reduce or eliminate state sovereignty. Second, the United States has pushed Arab countries away from agrarian reform (primarily land redistribution). Third, the United States has worked to replace native crops with US subsidized and nutritionally deficient ones and impose capital-intensive farming techniques that displace labor and privilege large landowners. Fourth, the United States has pushed for the removal of state support for agriculture through international financial institution-imposed fiscal-policy straitjackets. The fifth set of policies have undermined seed sovereignty. And sixth, the United States has encouraged unequal exchange that ensures lower prices for the region’s export crops.

A new US agricultural policy must rest on reversing these interconnected processes, which have made and unmade the Arab agrarian south. Each reversal requires domestic reform in the United States and corresponding foreign policy reform, from trade to macro-economic architecture to foreign policy. The policies are a series of interlocking gears, pulleys and levers that must be changed together, but in the right order, as well.


Support Economic Sovereignty


First, the United States must support regional self-determination. During the era of national liberation, from the dawn of the Bandung Conference in 1955 to the late-1970s dusk of the New International Economic Order, it was a commonplace notion that economic sovereignty was the complement to and continuation of political sovereignty. Decolonization could not be reduced to a seat at the United Nations.[4] An irreducible component of the agrarian question, or the way agriculture and rural people affect political change and economic development, is the national question: who is sovereign over the most basic resource, the national land base. When nations and states are under colonial or neo-colonial military assault, embargo or sanctions, it does not make sense to speak of free trade, let alone just trade, as the example of the Gaza Strip’s tragic emphasis on cut flower exports plainly demonstrates. Nor can attempts to build up sovereign seed systems really bloom unless nations have control over their own territories.

National sovereignty is necessary to implement agrarian reforms that redistribute land and push for state-society support of agroecology.
The agrarian question cannot be reduced to the national question, but the latter is the cornerstone and basis for further advance towards democratizing production and control over society. National sovereignty is necessary to implement agrarian reforms that redistribute land and push for state-society support of agroecology (the application of ecological principles to agriculture to create sustainable farming practices). It is no coincidence that the high tide of pro-small peasant policies preceded the 1967 US-Israeli war against Syria and Egypt, two countries that had most supported their smallholders.


Reform US Trade and Aid Policies


A second plank would require interlocking reforms in the US trade and aid sectors where agrarian reform and food dumping intersect. The Arab region can produce nearly all its own cereal needs, and with serious investment in supporting agroecological polycultures, peasants could produce more on their own plots, as has occurred worldwide. The region has been cajoled away from cereal self-sufficiency by US subsidies for domestic American agroindustry since the New Deal of the 1930s, leading to chronic domestic over-production (not, to be clear, to the benefit of US cereal farmers). After World War II, in 1954, surplus soy and cereals were sent abroad under Public Law 480, also called “Food for Peace,” which was part-and-parcel of the US war against communism—in fact, a war against independent development.[5]

Several domestic US policy changes would help realize a shift to self-sufficiency in the Arab world.
A keystone of US geopolitics was constraining agrarian revolution achieved through land redistribution—or “land to the tiller” reforms—that would have truly broken the spine of the feudal landed class. More small farms, rather than fewer big farms, would reverse the export orientation of Arab agriculture since small farmers are more likely to produce for their own consumption and the needs of nearby urban centers. Several domestic US policy changes would help realize a shift to self-sufficiency in the Arab world. Moving to domestic parity pricing, which indexes the price of crops to the costs of farming and household expenses, would ensure a living wage for US farmers. Alongside supply control through country-level economic land use planning, these same US farmers would produce fewer cereal crops, probably shifting to more livestock and silvopasturing (the practice of combining livestock, pasture and trees into a single managed system). They would no longer flood world markets with cereals that displace Third World producers. In turn, agricultural producers and state planners in the Arab region could more easily ensure that their own countries met basic requirements or would do so through coordinated regional planning.

Support Appropriate Agricultural Technology


The United States must cease imposing inappropriate agricultural technology on the Arab region, the third cluster of policies in need of reform. In Egypt, for example, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has effectively run large portions of the country’s Ministry of Agriculture since the early 1990s, when the US attack on Iraq inaugurated a final reversal of the Nasserist reforms in the countryside. Since then, US aid has subsidized the import of costly farm machinery and technologies that can only be employed by very large or wealthy landowners.

US aid has subsidized the import of costly farm machinery and technologies that can only be employed by very large or wealthy landowners.
Such aid is actually a circular flow that largely runs directly back to the United States. The goals of such expertise and assets have been to subsidize US industry, promote high-value export-oriented crops like fruits and vegetables for northern markets and consumption by the local ruling class and to achieve sufficient consolidation to enable the removal of domestic price supports, which has ensured the failure of the smallest farmers.[6] Egypt supplies US and European Union consumers with year-round fruits and vegetables at prices cheap enough to not pinch their purse and pricey enough to secure a profit for the export-oriented farmers in Egypt who focus on those crops. Within Egypt, such trade flows rest on the super-exploitation of the rural proletariat. Furthermore, beyond Egypt, the World Bank—which receives much of its direction from the United States—has helped promote large dams and other capital-intensive and ecologically inappropriate irrigation infrastructure region-wide.

A better policy would promote local alternatives, like appropriate-technology hydraulics in Tunisia and Yemen—technology that rests primarily on local expertise and uses local materials and local labor in order to assist smallholders’ to produce more at less cost, a kind of accumulation from below, while reinforcing, rather than rupturing, the water cycle.[7] Congress would need to mandate that US aid for the promotion of local alternatives must be spent in-country, and could stipulate that 75 percent of the projects’ outputs by weight and price are to be sold domestically, in consultation with each country’s agriculture ministry. A reformed policy would also encourage price supports and parity pricing for domestic farmers. And it would offer subsidies to agriculture ministries to offer below-market seasonal loans to small farmers, especially those using sustainable agroecology practices, as part of US climate reparations.


Prioritize Domestic Seed Systems


The fourth reform would be to reverse the US policy of undermining domestic seed systems. One way this undermining occurs is through promoting Green Revolution high-yielding dwarf wheats. Starting in the 1960s, this policy favored medium and large farms that could afford the inputs needed to maximize yields. Another mechanism that undermines seed sovereignty is the practice of constituting countries as monocrop-export platforms. In Tunisia, for example, date variety has been sharply reduced as beloved heirloom varieties have given way to the easily exportable Deglet Nour date. Seeds for fruits and vegetables are increasingly imported as well, a conduit for capital to rush out of the Arab region, while diminishing the genetic variety that can protect farmers against climate change induced drought, disease, pests and the catastrophic crop failure that can come from reliance on a single variety.

Furthermore, free trade deals have reduced farmers’ capacities and rights to freely store and exchange seeds. Against this devolutionary spiral, the United States could support participatory plant breeding, commit to keeping corporate seeds out of the Arab region and stop certifying industry patents of genetic material stolen from the formerly colonized world.


End Free Trade Deals in Agriculture


A fifth plank is to remove the World Trade Organization from agriculture and eliminate bilateral free trade deals between Arab countries and the United States. Such trade deals encourage countries to focus on their so-called comparative advantages (a chimerical concept that only applies when both of the countries can produce the commodity in question). Such calculations led to Egypt and Tunisia, for example, focusing on fruit and vegetable production for the global north at the expense of feeding their own populations. Intensive fruit and vegetable production often uses irreplaceable fossil aquifer water, but is encouraged by World Bank plans that incentivize such production through loans and given ideological ballast by phantasmagorical 20-year planning horizons—as though any such horizon can explain why relatively arid countries should push forward and drain fossil aquifers that will not be replenished for hundreds of years.

So-called free trade, overseen by USAID, encouraged the cultivation of cut flowers and strawberries for export from the embargoed Gaza Strip, whose inhabitants were encouraged to rely on food aid and market mechanisms, including the import of subsidized Israeli agriculture. After 30 years of these kind of free trade policies, the region remains in structural food deficit—the value of its agricultural imports is higher than the value of agricultural exports. A just US trade policy would deploy every possible mechanism to ensure that poor countries, and particularly the poor within those poor countries, would only engage in trade to the extent that it is beneficial to them and freely chosen.


Set Just Prices for Agricultural Exports


Trade must also occur at fair prices, which is the sixth cluster of policies to be reformed. Currently, peripheral countries’ structural import-export imbalances, including for agricultural goods, are tied to world market prices. Prices and trade are two interlocking gears of the world trading system. And prices are inevitably suppressed and manipulated, whether through monopolies, monopsonies (where there is only one buyer) or otherwise. The richer countries, or the core, are interested in ensuring that the goods they import have the lowest prices possible. The gear of trade is interlocked with the gear of production: if local capitalists wish to profit from such exchanges as well, they must—either as landowners or wholesalers—super-exploit the rural and industrial workers of the periphery. Such a situation is not inevitable. The Global North could switch out prices based on world market values with prices based on labor inputs, as Cuba did in its trade with the Soviet bloc.[8] Such just trade and pricing policies would be the US contribution to building up a polycentric, socially interdependent, but above all, non-exploitative world, in which, for example, Tunisians could continue to export some dates, but in the process they would neither desiccate their aquifers nor leave date pickers stuck in poverty.

Bread and land have been central to the most recent uprisings across the Arab world, as well as the struggles that preceded and followed them.[9] These six planks would begin to address those grievances through a fundamental reinvention of US policies. From changed aid policies to changed trade policies, these reforms are the basis upon which the United States can build up rather than break down the Arab countryside. Sequence is important. The United States must first cease directly undermining national self-determination before it could credibly offer development assistance or even climate-agriculture reparations. Reducing US encroachments on Arab regional autonomy is an absolute priority, before any effort to build just trade and aid architectures. Respecting Arab economic sovereignty, for example, and agreeing to keep the World Trade Organization out of agriculture are traditional demands of the global justice movement and might be supported by a broader social democratic party. Just trade, however, would require far deeper transformations in US social and political structures. Are these ideas utopic? Maybe, but in the words of Eduardo Galeano, even far utopias are useful, too—they “cause us to walk.”


Author’s Note: Thank you to Ray Bush and Habib Ayeb for suggestions and discussion.


[Max Ajl is an associated researcher with the Tunisian NGO Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment and writes on Arab agrarian issues and dependency theory. His book, A People’s Green New Deal, is forthcoming from Pluto Press.]





[1] Josué de Castro, The Geopolitics of Hunger (Monthly Review, 1977).

[2] Numbers from FAOSTAT. The years 2011-2013 are the latest for which FAOSTAT computes such numbers on a regional basis. Iraq is the major outlier in improving per capita cereal production since then, although with rising malnutrition.

[3] Max Ajl, “Does the Arab Region Have an Agrarian Question?Journal of Peasant Studies, 2020.

[4]Umut Özsu, “’In the Interests of Mankind as a Whole:’ Mohammed Bedjaoui’s New International Economic Order,” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 6/1 (2015). Ismail-Sabri Abdallah, “Independent Development: An Attempt to Define an Unknown Concept,” in Independent Development in the Arab Nation, ed. Nader Fergany (Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies, 1987). [Arabic]

[5] Harriet Friedmann and Philip McMichael, “Agriculture and the State System: The Rise and Decline of National Agricultures, 1870 to the Present,” Sociologia Ruralis 29/2 (1989).

[6] Ray Bush, “Crisis in Egypt: Structural Adjustment, Food Security and the Politics of USAID,” Capital & Class 18/2 (1994).

[7] For some of the alternative rural technologies that were proposed in the Arab world in the1980s, see Martha Mundy, “Agricultural Development in the Yemeni Tihama: The Past Ten Years,” Economy, Society and Culture in Contemporary Yemen, ed. B. Pridham (London: Croom Helm, 1985). Slaheddine El-Amami, “Les Aménagements Hydrauliques Traditionnels En Tunisie” (Tunis: CRGR, 1984). Max Ajl, “Auto-Centered Development and Indigenous Technics: Slaheddine El-Amami and Tunisian Delinking,” Journal of Peasant Studies 46/6 (2019).

[8] For discussion of debates around this, see H. Yaffe, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution (Springer, 2009). Ernesto Guevara and María del Carmen Ariet, Apuntes críticos a la economía política (Centro de Estudios Che Guevara, 2006). John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).

[9] Saker El Nour, “Small Farmers and the Revolution in Egypt: The Forgotten Actors,” Contemporary Arab Affairs 8/2 (April 3, 2015). Habib Ayeb and Ray Bush, Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa (London and New York: Anthem Press, 2019).

How to cite this article:

Max Ajl "Six Steps to Reform US Agricultural Policy in the Arab Region," Middle East Report 294 (Spring 2020).

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