The Middle East and North Africa (Mena), a region populated by more than 5 per cent of all humans inhabiting this planet, is responsible for 1 per cent of total global production of food necessities. Take a few seconds to digest that.
I specifically mentioned food necessities in reference to the three main commodities that are not only essential for food security around the globe, but are fundamental food staples in the Mena countries. These are maize, rice and wheat.
Mena’s share is 1 per cent of all maize and all rice produced globally. That percentage, despite fluctuations over the past 50 years or so, has not budged much from that level. As for wheat, Mena does slightly better. In fact, Mena’s production as a share of all wheat produced globally, almost matches its population ratio to the world’s population at about 5 per cent.
It actually makes perfect sense for a commodity that has always been at the core of what came to be termed as “bread riots” in the 1970s, and which has taken place with every global food crisis or with the removal of bread subsidies.
More than percentages
Food security in Mena though cannot be simplified into ratios and proportion of production to population. The issue of food security in Mena runs as deep as its flawed economic fundamentals, aggravated by states’ self-sufficiency policies, and resulting in food insecurity through a lack of affordability. In short, the food insecurity issue in Mena is one of production and another of limited entitlement, as coined by Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize laureate in economics.
Consider here cotton cultivation in Sudan. Despite its colonial roots, there was nothing wrong with cotton cultivation or its yield, both in terms of produce and the foreign currencies that it brought into the state. The only issue was that cotton cultivation did not evolve into industries that could spin cotton off into textiles, or at least not at a scale that was regionally and globally competitive.
The Gezira project, a relic from pre-independence times, stands as an embodiment of what could have been and never was, as cultivation switched from cotton to wheat. Taken at face value, the decision to be self-sufficient by cultivating a staple food commodity for the country is logical to improve access to food for its population.
This argument though is undermined by the fact that cotton cultivated in the project could have bought four times its worth in wheat imports. It is true that inadequate food production is surely the main culprit in Mena’s food security dilemma. However, it does not matter how much food a country produces if its population cannot afford it.
The entitlement issue is not as straight forward as the cultivation and yield one. One failed industry after another in Mena created a vicious cycle of endless unemployment and stagnant job growth.
The lack of employment opportunities means that the state ends up subsidising not only the food that it could not grow domestically, such as wheat, but also subsidise employment through the provision of government jobs. Otherwise, unemployment results in income deprivation and thus limited entitlement to food.
This of course does not in any way avail states from having to further subsidise food to placate their populations since unemployment is a rife and growing issue in Mena, which continues to aggravate food insecurity. As a result, governments’ continuous subsidisation of jobs inflates the size and role of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), crowding out private companies and undermining their role in creating jobs.
Thus far, Mena has come a long way despite its 50 years of food insecurity. While one significant factor had been hydrocarbons and periods of high oil prices, another that should not be underestimated is that of economic reforms which, despite being implemented half-heartedly, have shouldered a few of the food security troughs.
Mena was never able to produce enough food to match its population growth. Such growth does not only strain food production, but also puts pressures on states’ coffers as Mena countries have to continue subsidising food and employment for growing populations through government jobs. Thus, food insecurity is not only the by-product of a lack of food production and the resources needed for it.
Food insecurity is also the by-product of economic mismanagement and the lack of job and income creation that came with it. The last question that I want to leave you with: How will Mena afford its food over the coming 50 years, and more?
Abdulnasser Alshaali is a UAE based economist.