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Sowing the Arab Spring

[Image from the cover of Rami Zurayk, [Image from the cover of Rami Zurayk, "Food, Farming and Freedom"]

Rami Zurayk, Food, Farming and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring. Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2011.

Is there a link between the decline in the availability of hearty village bread in Lebanon and the Arab revolutions of the past several months? In Food, Farming, and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring, Rami Zurayk, Professor of Agronomy at the American University of Beirut, answers in the affirmative and goes on to show why. Food could be fairly described as the book version of Zurayk's essential blog "Land and People." Like the blog, the book covers a wide range of topics, from Israel-Palestine to international trade to food production, small-scale farming, and foreign aid. The blog-as-book format takes a bit of getting used to, but as long as one realizes that an exhaustive and systematic academic analysis is not the aim, one can read the book as it is intended: as a tour through many dilemmas of the contemporary Arab world as illustrated by myriad short case studies and column-length analyses. Taken together, these encapsulate a critique of the existing order based on how that order affects individual livelihoods, especially small farmers, and their immediate economic environments.

The chief focus of the book is the political economy of food production in the region, with Lebanon as a case study of a system designed to benefit the wealthy classes in the country and to be in synch with what Zurayk calls the "market fundamentalism" of the international neo-liberal economic order. In Lebanon, where an extreme version of laissez faire economic policy has been the norm for a long time, government oversight over key parts of the economy is minimal, even less than what international, neo-liberal arrangements allow. Government inspection of food imports at the borders, for instance, is essentially non-existent, as is the regulation of the use of pesticides. These realities benefit wealthy food importers and large-scale producers of fruits and vegetables, who can afford and use pesticides as well as other relatively expensive inputs, but they victimize farm workers and ordinary consumers.

The perverse lack of basic government regulations in Lebanon is perhaps unique to that country, but the larger international economic forces Zurayk discusses affect nearly all developing countries. The problem Zurayk describes is an old one. Briefly, the advent of more capitalistic farming methods and integration of rural food producing areas into the international economy create a dynamic that severely disadvantages small-holder production. Export farming, he explains, requires a "critical mass of assets" such as land, capital, fertilizer, and other inputs, along with a relatively long investment horizon often needed for fruit trees and other export crops to grow and begin bearing produce. Absent co-ops or similar institutions that help small farmers pool their resources in order to benefit from economies of scale, only people of wealth can afford these investments and have the necessary land holdings to engage in such productive activities. Small-scale farmers, on the other hand, generally have minimal investment assets and their time horizon is seasonal, as they eat some of the food they produce and sell the rest locally.

At the same time, when a country like Lebanon is opened up to food imports such as subsidized grain from the European Union, small Lebanese farmers are priced out of the local market. Food subsidies for poor urban dwellers are another factor that keeps food prices down, hurting small farmers. These structural realities have created waves of migration from the rural areas into the cities across the developing world as small-holder farming loses its economic vitality and small farmers lose their livelihoods. In places where there are insecure land tenure systems, peasants often lose their farms and end up working as poorly paid wage laborers on the same land.

The effects of these changes are multi-dimensional, and Zurayk is adept at illustrating them. For him, the most basic and most deplorable is the disruption of the organic link between villagers and the land. In the move to capitalist farming, mono-cropping replaces more environmentally sound, bio-diverse multiple-cropping systems. These trends extend to diets and nutrition. Traditional farming systems produced healthy foods, in which each village and region had its own, sometimes well-known, food products. Vegetables and whole grains were preponderant. With the decline of small farms, these traditional, healthier foods were and are consumed less, their place being taken more and more by meat and fat.

One of Zurayk's favorite tasks, which he shares with the reader, is to discover and sample these disappearing local food products. For Food, Farming, and Freedom is also something of a food guide to the Fertile Crescent. Interspersed among the major chapters are short, photo/travel essays where Zurayk takes the reader on excursions to traditional food markets in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. These are the "fun" parts of the book, but Zurayk is quite serious about the importance of documenting and, crucially, preserving local food culture. It turns out that he is much more than a consumer and observer of local food culture and economy; he is also very much a participant-advocate and technical advisor. "Land and People" is also a small extension service Zurayk oversees that helps Lebanese small-scale farmers and food preparers with various types of technical assistance.

Food Security and Insecurity

The vulnerability of small farmers to greater economic forces is duplicated at the national level. Just as small farmers have to face the vagaries of the "free market" with minimal assets at their disposal, developing countries that import large amounts of their food needs are vulnerable to instability in international food markets. In the mid-2000s, global trends led to precipitous increases in international food prices, with prices overall increasing by forty percent in less than a year, while some essential commodities, including wheat and rice, increased by more than 200 percent. These global and regional trends included a large increase in oil prices (increasing production, processing, and transport costs); severe drought in some parts of the Middle East; the increasing demand for meat (and thus feed grain) in emerging markets, including, especially, China; the diversion of corn from human consumption to the production of biofuels; and speculation by international financial corporations.

Here, then, is where neo-liberal notions of economic efficiency and comparative advantage are shown to be especially problematic. In theory, and using a very narrow definition of “efficiency,” it may indeed be advantageous for developing countries to concentrate on food products that they can grow and export, thereby creating a surplus that can be used to purchase their basic food needs in international markets. But the benefits of that efficiency go only to a relatively small number of individuals associated with exports, while small farms are rendered less productive or are lost altogether, and the farmers end up as laborers or migrants to the city. Although everyone has to pay more for food when international prices spike, those at the bottom of the income ladder suffer disproportionately. But the problems do not end with the dispossession of the peasants and the further impoverishment of the urban poor. The country as a whole, having to import a large proportion of essential food products, becomes especially vulnerable to the vagaries of international food markets, and its balance of trade and national budget are further weakened.

And as food prices rise, anger grows among those significantly affected. The mass protests starting in the mid-2000s and culminating in the Arab uprisings of 2011 have been widely attributed, at least in part, to rising food prices and the corresponding and very significant decline in real incomes and quality of life for perhaps a majority of urban and rural inhabitants.

What, then, can developing countries do to regain food security, help small farmers, and lessen the ill effects of the international capitalist food regime? Zurayk writes that he does not favor total self-reliance. Nor does he argue for a return to the state-led development models of the post-independence period. He does call, however, for major structural changes in the existing order, arguing that "nothing will work short of a systemic revolution and that one cannot humanize the neoliberal, free market-based system." This, along with the conviction that "the future of food in in this region cannot be addressed without moving back toward the organic integration of the countries of the Fertile Crescent," is his big-picture view of Arab food matters.

Zurayk does not offer too many specifics, but it is fair to say that his critique of the international neo-liberal economic regime implies the restoration of meaningful control by small, developing countries over the terms governing their integration into the international economic order: "Globally, the hegemonic drive of the empire associated with the party of money and trade has to be curtailed through systemic action." In another post, he writes: "only a systematic challenge of the dominant economic and political, cultural, and social order can deliver freedom, sovereignty, and pride." 

At the local level, Zurayk wants to reconnect people to the land, not as exploiters, but as responsible custodians of farmland and the environment more generally. This attention to the fate of small farmers could only occur within the context of a far-reaching attempt to restructure agriculture in Lebanon and other Arab countries: "Locally, we need to catalyze the move from a situation of food dependency to one of sovereignty."

Much of this analysis is broad in scope and, in sum, does not offer detailed policy prescriptions to reverse the decline of small farms. There are good descriptions of the problems at both the international and local levels and a presentation of general ideas about what should happen in both realms. But there is not much discussion of specific, pro-small farmer economic policies that an enlightened Lebanese government (or any Arab government) should pursue. What would spur a reinvigoration of small-scale agricultural production in Lebanon and across the region? How can Arab countries cooperate with each other to enhance and create a system of collective food security? Is land redistribution part of the solution in some places? If so, how could it be brought about? What sort of governance and other institutions would be needed to make it happen? How should the complicated issues relating to food prices be dealt with? How can countries regain control over the seeds needed for a revitalized food production system given that a small number of agribusiness conglomerates controls a significant amount of the international seed market? Zurayk helpfully raises many, if not all, of these questions, and illustrates their dilemmas, but he does not offer specific answers.

In defense of the book, its purpose is not to answer such detailed questions. So the above is perhaps somewhat unfair. But I hope that at some point Zurayk will grapple with these issues more systematically and in greater detail — perhaps in another book — because they are so important.

What is significant and refreshing about Zurayk's analysis is that while his perspective is very much embedded in the immediate, every day challenges to small farmers and the village economy generally, unlike countless development experts and international aid agencies, he fully understands that only a major change in the international economic order can alter how small, relatively weak entities — whether they be individual farmers or small countries — are integrated into their economic surroundings and thereby create opportunities for more dynamic, widely-shared economic development.

How can such change take place? Just as in his discussion of the local, farm level, Zurayk does not offer many specifics about how to transform the dominant order at the national or international level. No doubt it is a daunting task, and great political forces would have to be summoned and focused on an explicit set of objectives. Until early 2011, the notion of making even a modest change in the existing international order as it affects the Middle East seemed delusional, given the forces arrayed against such change.

The Arab uprisings, however, have fundamentally challenged the neoliberal economic order in the Middle East. Just as huge demonstrations and myriad other actions have confronted unpopular, but reliable (for the West and Israel), authoritarian regimes, activists in Egypt and Tunisia in particular have also sought to reorder the balance of economic and social power within those countries. Indeed, the uprisings across the Arab world may comprise the best chance in several decades to regain a meaningful degree of control over their political and economic futures as well as to empower to some extent the urban and rural poor.

Zurayk's coverage of the Arab uprisings mirrors the dramatic swings of hope and worry felt by many interested observers. At some points, he is full of wonder about what has happened. In a post on 2 February 2011, he writes:

The will of the people of Egypt is unshakable, and they know we are all looking up to them. They sense they have taken the Arab world to a historic juncture and that there is no way back. The Arab world will never be the same. We have tasted freedom and it is addictive.

But, on 16 February, five days after Mubarak’s resignation, he sees continuity with the old security regime.

The regime is not yet changed. Mubarak is gone, but for a regime change and a departure from the neoliberal domination in all its forms, the army, which is now in control, may have to be neutralized.

He also takes a justified shot at U.S. policy makers.

The arrogance of the U.S. politicians is clearer than ever these days. They do not care to hide it any more. They want to dictate to the Egyptian people how they should lead their revolution. And they are now talking about supporting the "wish of the people" and the "rights of the people," as if they really cared about the people when they supported dictatorships and fed them and helped them oppress that same people for over 30 years.

The Arab Revolutions: Where To?

Zurayk is encouraged by the Arab revolts, expressing his belief that what has been accomplished is "huge," and marveling at the success of the "leaderless revolution" and "self-assembling networks."  But he worries that an "ideological framework," a revolutionary theory has not accompanied this action. The slogan, "the people want to bring down the regime," was powerful in the first stage of revolution, but it does not provide a guide for what happens next. Zurayk quotes the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral as saying that "Nobody has yet made a successful revolution without a revolutionary theory." It is a crucial point, and a critical question about the nature of the revolutions themselves. Are they liberal, reformist movements that partially enfranchise citizens while allowing key components of the security state to remain where they are, if partially restructured? Or do the revolutions seek a more thorough-going restructuring of the regime, state-society relations, and the economy?

Zurayk's answer is the second, which is why he is so concerned, and rightfully so, with ideas. And perhaps this is the most important contribution of this book and his blog. In a long post on March 26, Zurayk articulates what could be seen as a moral framework for a theory: “We struggle not only to overthrow regimes, but also to build new states on the basis of the core principles . . . of equity, social justice, democracy with freedom, people's rights and balance of power."

What is freedom? "True freedom cannot exist with inequality, fear, need, and discrimination, and it cannot be dissociated from education, awareness, and equity." These principles, as he says, "form the core of the leftist thought I adhere to."

These ideas by no means constitute a theory of revolution, but they may be a contribution to debates about the meaning and objectives of the revolutions in a newly energized Arab world. It is perhaps the case that in these Arab revolutions, action-oriented theories and political organizations could not even begin to take shape until space was opened up for relatively free, broad discussion of what kind of society should be realized. So it may not be too late for theories of revolution to emerge and have an effect. And in the ongoing and accelerating political debates throughout the Arab world, it is to be hoped that Rami Zurayk’s perspective on the importance of food production and food security, the fate of small farmers, and local environments is heard.

[Below is a brief interview with Rami Zurayk discussing Food, Farming and Freedom.]

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