Arab countries have reeled under a cumulative food deficit of more than $110 billion (Dh404bn) in seven years and the gap is projected to widen in the medium term although they have enough arable land to feed themselves.
The gap, the difference between exports and imports, affected all types of crop and farm animals except fish, which is produced in surplus in most regional states, said the Khartoum-based Arab Organisation for Agricultural Development and Investment (AOADI), an affiliate of the 22-member Arab League.
Between 2000 and 2006, the combined Arab food deficit totalled around $110.1bn, an average $15.7bn a year compared with nearly $11bn in the previous seven years, the AOADI said in a recent report.
Despite efforts by some regional countries to expand their cultivated areas, the gap is expected to sharply widen in the next seven years as the Arab population is growing much faster than the agricultural sector in most member states.
The report gave no estimates for 2007 but experts expect the deficit to have increased because of less rainfall in some arable countries, lower investments, and even persistent conflicts in such countries as Iraq, Somalia and Sudan.
Over the past seven years, the worst food gap has been recorded in cereal, exceeding $6bn annually while sugar, wheat, barley, rice, dairy and other products were also main victims, according to AOADI report.
The deficit has worsened over the past decade because of flawed farm policies in most member states, internal and regional conflicts, shortage in investment, and failure of governments to utilise the available arable land.
Officials have repeatedly voiced concern about the agricultural gap and growing Arab reliance on food imports, mainly from the United States and other Western countries. Some officials considered such reliance as a risk to their security.
According to AOADI and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, most Arab nations are suffering from slackening farm exports and rapid growth in the population, leading to a steady increase in their imports of food products.
The shortage persisted despite an expansion in the cultivated areas in some Arab nations as a result of reforms aimed at increasing crop.
From around 67 million hectares in 1999, the combined Arab cultivated area widened by nearly 4.3 per cent to 70 million hectares in 2002 and continued to expand to reach around 75 million hectares in 2006.
But it remained far below the area of the existing arable land of around 197 million hectares, which itself accounts for less than 15 per cent of the Arab World’s total area of 1.4bn hectares.
AOADI blamed lack of irrigation water, poor inter-Arab investment and other social, economic and political factors for the long-standing problem.
“Lack of water needed for the agricultural sector to ensure the food needs of the people constitutes the main challenge facing the farming sector. This shows the strong relationship between the Arab food security and water security as they have become two sides of one coin,” according to the AOADI.
“This means it is extremely difficult for Arab countries to largely expand their production without tackling the water problem.”
Experts said lack of funds to finance farm projects in some fertile Arab countries, mainly Sudan, is another major obstacle for the low Arab food output.
They cited other factors such as the harsh weather in the Gulf, internal strife within some member states and the reluctance of Arab nations to invest in other states because of political differences and security risks.
While they have managed to cut their food import bill, the UAE and other desert GCC countries are still heavily reliant on imports. Outside the Gulf, such fertile members as Sudan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq also suffer from a sharp food gap although their farming potential is sufficient to feed the entire region.
During a recent farming conference, AOADI acknowledged defective agricultural policies in the region were to blame along with other factors for the plight which has become more a security than a food problem.
AOADI said: “The Arab food security situation has steadily worsened because of drought, flawed agricultural policies, spread of farm diseases, lack of investments and other factors.
“The widening Arab goods gap and its serious implications on Arab security should prompt us to pool our efforts to restore balance to the farming sector. In this regard, we should not ignore the important role of the private sector and other non-governmental bodies in the agricultural development.”
The report showed the following gaps – wheat stood at around $4.34bn in 2006 while it was estimated at $2.65bn in dairy products, $2.43bn in meat, $2.15bn in corn, $1.25bn in sugar, and around $1.16m in rice.
Self-sufficiency in such products has even worsened over the past years, shrinking from 57.3 per cent in 2003 to 51 per cent in 2006.
In barely, it was as low as 33.1 per cent in 2006, while it stood at 35.8 per cent in corn, around 38.7 per cent in sugar and only about 28 per cent in cooking oil.
Although the farming sector’s contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) grew from around $60.1bn in 1990 to $79.5bn in 2002 and about $85bn in 2006, it is projected to decline to around $64bn in 2014, AOADI said.
“The ratio of the farming sector to the GDP is also expected to recede from around 9.3 per cent in 2004 to 6.6 per cent in 2014. As the Arab population is growing steadily, the individual’s share of the farming sector will plummet to only $130.6 in 2014 from $216.4 in 2004, which is a decline of 39.7 per cent,” it said.
“Given the steady increase in the value and size of the Arab farm gap, development and expanding agricultural production will become a serious challenge for regional countries in the future. This can be combated only by tremendously improving agriculture policies, better utilisation of land, introduction of more technology in the farming sector and encouragement of more farming investment,” according to AOADI.
4.3% From around 67m hectares in 1999, the combined Arab cultivated area widened by about 4.3 per cent in 2002.
$64bn The farming sector’s contribution is projected to decline to about $64 billion in 2014, according to AOADI.
Arab world's 'food gap' set to widen