Three New Books about MENA Food Security

Three new books have been published about food security in the Middle East and North Africa: Jane Harrigan’s The Political Economy of Arab Food Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Food Security in the Middle East, edited by Zahra Babar and Suzi Mirgani (Hurst, 2014) and The Politics of Food Security: Asian and Middle Eastern Strategies, edited by Sara Bazoobandi (Gerlach Press, 2014).

Bazoobandi`s book has emanated out of a conference at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore and compares food security strategies in the MENA with Asian countries like South Korea and China. My own article in the volume is about this topic, others deal with urban agriculture, Japan, and modern food systems in the Asia-Pacific. Particularly interesting is an article about Iranian food security by Nikolay Kozhanov who served as attaché at the Russian embassy in Tehran between 2006 and 2009.

Babars’s and Mirgani’s book entails a number of conceptual studies about the impact of supermarkets on food systems, obesity, Gulf agro-investments in Ethiopia or my own article about historic food regimes and the MENA as well as a variety of case studies about countries like Yemen, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. The book is the outcome of one of the superb workshops and collective research efforts at the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at the Georgetown University in Qatar.

Like Food Security in the Middle East, Jane Harrigan’s book The Political Economy of Arab Food Sovereignty provides an excellent analysis of food security challenges in the MENA. By coining the term “macro food sovereignty” Harrigan describes multiple efforts of MENA governments to gain direct access and political control over food supplies, if necessary by disregarding market rationalities and economic efficiency. Macro food sovereignty is thus different from trade-based approaches to food security as advised by international bodies like the World Bank. It is also different from the original meaning of the term “food sovereignty” that has focused on the micro level and has been used by advocacy groups like La Via Campesina to call for farmers’ control over their livelihoods and production decisions.

Harrigan provides a rich variety of data and does a great job in analyzing the development discourse about MENA food security. She goes beyond domestic agriculture and foreign agro-investments and embeds her analysis of food security in the broader context of economic development, income distribution and food accessibility. Like in her earlier writings her approach is refreshingly unorthodox and challenges prevalent development paradigms.

Harrigan and I had our differences regarding the extent of Gulf agro-investments and a widespread implementation gap of announced projects. My reading of press reports and some earlier entries in the Land Matrix database certainly would be more skeptical. Some of the mentioned examples like the Qatari investments in Kenya or UAE based Abraaj Capital’s investments in Pakistan have never gotten off the ground. In the current version of the Land Matrix they are in fact categorized as failed. There also have not been specific land for oil deals, although land for infrastructure deals have been proposed.

But when reading Harrigan’s book I also find considerable agreement, for example about the need to favor joint equity projects and contract farming over fully owned plantation projects that are much more likely to alienate local populations. We also seem to be in broad agreement that preemptive displacements can be serious threats and that improved social safety nets need to be part and parcel of food security policies in the MENA. In sum this is a great addition to the growing body of literature about food security in the Middle East that is particularly helpful in linking it to the broader development debate.

Chinese Agro-Investments in Africa

Last month I was at a conference about Chinese agro investments in Africa at SAIS/ Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

Deborah Brautigam differentiated five types of such investments: 1) media myths and false reports; 2) former aid projects that have now been privatized; 3) construction contracts; 4) government projects that were launched more than a decade ago; and 5) real, current projects.

There are only a few current projects in the category 5) and they target food production for the domestic African market, not for export to China, which would not make commercial sense for logistical reasons.

Like in the case of the Gulf countries there is a certain disconnect with media reports and their inflated numbers about land grabs.

That having said China has recently shown strong interest in food related investments, but they have focused on the trading and food processing sectors with a view of improving food safety and catering to the increasingly diverse diets of the Chinese population.

Among such investments have been Tnuva, the Israeli cheese and consumer foods supplier, US pork producer Smithfield Foods, the UK breakfast brand Weetabix and Australian winemaker Hollick. Chinese grain trader COFCO has recently spent $1.5bn on a stake in a sugar, soyabean and wheat joint venture with Hing Kong based Noble Group.

It seems that China prepares to compete with the Cargills and Nestlés of this world rather than directly gobbling up farmland in the upstream sector. There are some large food processing companies in the Gulf that operate internationally like Kuwait based Americana. Gulf countries have also shown a similar, if more subdued interest in trading companies as I describe in Oil for Food, but compared with China they have arguably less capacities to realize such strategies.

Ag Growth in the Gulf: Fertilizer and Organic Farming

While wheat production is being phased out in Saudi Arabia there are growth areas in Gulf agriculture, like organic farming and indoor vegetables.

The Gulf also solidifies its position as a major fertilizer producer for global agricultural markets. This is not only true for nitrogen based fertilizer like ammonia and urea that is gained from natural gas, but also for the Al-Jalamid phosphate project, which has started to produce and aims at a 10 percent market share of globally traded Diammonium Phosphate (DAP) fertilizer.

Phosphates are now the focus of Saudi Arabia’s largest mining company Maaden and make up 60 percent of its value according to a research report of Al Rajhi Capital.

On a global level it needs to be noted that the Middle East holds the vast majority of global phosphorus/ phosphates reserves. Fears of a ‘peak phosphate’ by as early as the 2030s have been overblown after the massive upgrade of the Moroccan reserve base, first by the International Fertilizer Development Center and then by the US Geological Survey. Morocco now holds over three quarters of global phosphorus reserves according to the new estimates.

Like Jordan, which also holds considerable reserves, Morocco has been offered GCC membership in the wake of the Arab spring. While this was about politically strengthening Arab monarchies, it is conceivable that Middle Eastern countries might use their fertilizer production in the future to foster relations with agricultural producer countries and improve their food supply security.

Kenana Sugar Company plans Hong Kong IPO

Kenana Sugar Company wants to  launch a $200 mn IPO in Hong Kong.

Sudanese regard the company as a shinning example, while the Kuwaiti and Saudi shareholders  (31% and 11%) are less happy about their investment that dates back to the 1970s when the Gulf countries wanted to develop Sudan as an Arab bread-basket.

Why Hong Kong? Getting access to Chinese capital, even though China has recently backed out of an agro project in the country as Sudan could not deliver the oil collateral for loans anymore?

Sudan has a sugar plan in place that wants to increase sugar production in the country tenfold by 2020, but Gulf countries have shown no interest so far to increase their investment beyond Kenana.

Sudan: A Big Gulf Landgrab that Wasn’t?

Center Pivot Irrigation at a project of Al Rajhi at Berber

I have just returned form a research trip to Sudan, during which I had the chance to interview a number of Sudanese decision makers and visit agricultural projects of Gulf countries.

Based on newspapers, grey literature and interviews in the Gulf region I argue in the Brown Journal of World Affairs that there is a gap between the announcements of Gulf agro investments and their actual implementation.This argument could be corroborated in Sudan.Gulf countries only engage reluctantly in the country.

Fears of political unrest,volatile investment regulations and problematic governance are widespread. The ‘agricultural renaissance’ (al nahda al zira’iyya) that the Sudanese government envisaged in 2008 has not taken place so far. By 2011 self-sufficiency in wheat was promised, but it continues to linger around 30 percent for example.

As production increases in the center have found wanting  the regime is touting a plan to use water from the West Nubian Sandstone aquifer, in order to cultivate wheat in the Northern desert. A plan that is eerily reminiscent of the failed Saudi wheat program that has relied on an unsustainable use of fossil water.

Most Gulf projects focus on the Northern area around Abu Hamad and Berber, where Nile water is pumped uphill in order to irrigate wheat fields on relatively poor soils.

As land around the riverain areas is limited the regime has advertised cultivation of desert land, but has oversold available land for irrigation. This has led to disappointments.One Gulf investor saw his project size diminish from 70,000 feddans to only 4,000 feddans.

Entrance of the Zayed Al Khair Project south of Khartoum

Existing projects have faced various challenges.The Zayed al Khair project (see photo) at Wad Rawah about 100 km south of Khartoum has been around for 10  years. Yet it only plants 3000 feddans on an overall project size of 40,000 feddans, down from about 15,000 feddans during better times.

The limited activity can be clearly seen on the Google Earth snapshot below. The cultivation of wheat and sorghum has not proven to be profitable and the management is trying its luck with rice now. Water is pumped from the Nile, but an increase in acreage would require additional pumps and canals.

Similarly, a project of the Al Rajhi group near Berber only cultivates a fraction of its total project size of 25k feddans. A project by UAE based Al Zafra in the rainfed areas 140km south of Gedaref has been given up completely after only one year of cultivation in 2008/2009.

The Syrian management alienated local workers with their paternalistic style, the soils were poor and exhausted and lack of roads made access impossible during the rainy season.On some projects considerable conflicts with previous customary land rights holders exist and management complains about sabotage.

On another project early protests faded as former customary land rights holders are paid an annual rent and have been given land on a sugar project nearby.

The employment effect is limited in all cases, as production is capital intensive and foreign labor is imported from Egypt or the Philippines. Sudanese workers are seen as lacking the skills needed for mechanized production and specific procedures like land leveling and rice refining.

Pumped Nile water in a canal on the plateau above the river

GCC food imports to hit $53.1b by 2020

“The value of food imports to the GCC countries will more than double over the next decade to satisfy a growing regional population with more money to spend as the process of urbanization continues. New research shows as food consumption increases, total GCC food imports will reach $53.1 billion by 2020, an increase of 105 percent from 2010 ($25.8). Rising at a rate of 4.6 percent annually from 2011-2015 in a region low on agricultural land and natural water sources, and forced to import 90 percent of its food products, food consumption in the GCC will reach 51.5 million tons per year during this period. Underlining huge opportunities for food and equipment manufacturers and suppliers, the latest estimates have been released by the Economist Intelligence Unit ahead of SIAL Middle East 2011, the region’s professional business platform for the food, drink and hospitality industry.”