Drive for regional food security lessening, says SOAS professor

By Eliot Beer

- Last updated on GMT

Drive for regional food security lessening, says SOAS professor

Related tags Sustainability Peak oil Economics

Food security has become less urgent for Middle East states, but many are still pursuing “macro food sovereignty” policies to ensure long-term supply, according to a SOAS academic.

According to Jane Harrigan, professor of economics at SOAS, University of London, and a member of the university’s Food Studies Centre, the pressure around food security has lessened in recent years: “Although I think food sovereignty is still a strong concept in the region, it hasn’t quite got the same urgency as it had just after the 2007-8 price spike, and again after the 2011 price spike​.”

Price rises sparked change

Harrigan says the price rises starting seven years ago triggered a change in Arab states’ approach to food security which saw them move away from trade-based approaches to securing food supplies. Instead, governments focused on major land acquisition programmes, along with domestic production projects aimed at ensuring their countries would be more food self-sufficient – both highly expensive, and often impractical or controversial strategies.

I think to some extent there was a knee-jerk reaction, and that’s why as time has passed, as there’s been analysis of some of the programmes, as prices have begun to fall back down again, we see countries like Qatar begin to revise their approach, away from this extreme [macro food sovereignty] strategy of wanting food self-sufficiency and overseas land acquisition​,” said Harrigan.

She said Qatar has now largely halted its massive land acquisition programme – managed by government-owned Hassad Food – thanks in large part to the extremely negative publicity it was attracting. As with similar programmes, Qatar had often been accused of conducting “land grabs​”, in countries as diverse as Sudan and Australia.

Oil price falls affect food plans

Another possible factor in the recent reduction in intensity of food security programmes is the falling price of oil. According to Harrigan, oil prices are “intimately linked with both the ability and the incentive to follow food sovereignty strategies​”.

Food prices and oil prices are usually quite closely connected, particularly when oil prices remain above about US$50 per barrel – the two indices tend to move together. When oil prices come down, food prices come down, and that has a double effect: firstly, it reduces the finance oil exporters have to pursue food sovereignty. Secondly, as food prices themselves start to come down, it reduces the incentive states have to follow food sovereignty strategies​,” she said.

Supply, not cost, was biggest issue

Harrigan also noted rising prices were not necessarily the biggest worry for regional governments: “Particularly for the richer Gulf states, what spooked them almost more than the price spike was the major export bans food exporters placed on their exports, which meant they were faced with the prospect that if these bans persisted – countries like India, Ukraine, Russia placed bans on the exports of grain – they may not be able to access food supplies almost at any price. It was a combination both of the price spike and the export ban​.

From an economic perspective, strategies such as domestic self-sufficiency make little sense, according to Harrigan, thanks to their inefficient use of water and other scarce resources. And while land acquisition programmes may make more economic sense, they still come with significant costs and major risks.

But if you look at it from a broader political, social perspective, even domestic-sufficiency might seem quite sensible. One of the things I’ve argued elsewhere is that the rapid price spike in 2010-11 was one of the factors behind the Arab Spring – I’m not suggesting by any means it was the only factor, but it was certainly a component in the mix that led to severe domestic political instability​,” she added. 

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