Countries from North Africa and the Middle East share a common colonial heritage and with the relative exception of pre-2011 Syria, a structural food import dependency. The global food crisis of 2007-2008 affected the region, although the immediate effects were more dramatic in some cases (for example, Egypt and Yemen) than in others – such as the oil-rich countries, which have at their disposal the necessary financial reserves to withstand shocks in the global agricultural markets.
Today, “MENA is the world’s largest food importer, relying on world markets for more than 50 percent of its food” (Bush 2016, 1). With an average of 11 million imported tonnes each year (or 6.55 percent of the quantity of soft wheat exchanged in the world), Egypt is undeniably the world’s major wheat importer. It is second amongst the corn-importing countries, with 9 million tonnes annually. In return, just eight countries, including the United States, France, Russia, Canada, and Australia, provide 85 percent of global wheat exports, and impose a real food dependency on large sections of the Global South. ‘Even though they only represent 3 percent of the global population, the Arab Mediterranean countries, from Morocco to Syria, concentrate, since the beginning of the 21st century between 15 and 17 percent of annual global imports of cereals’ (Translated, Mathieu Brun, 2019; 12).
The first academic international conference of the Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment (OSAE) Agrarian colonial and postcolonial policies and processes of construction of food dependencies in North Africa and the Middle East, which will be held in Tunis during the first week of April 2020, aims to bring together researchers in social sciences from the region, or who work on the region, to discuss the relationships between political and economic domination and food dependency. The first main question around which participants in the conference will be invited to intervene is: How have countries of the region been progressively subjected to global market mechanisms and been unevenly integrated into the global food system? Second, How will it be possible to delink from the global food system and in doing promote an alternative set of food dynamics not dependent upon, among other things, the global law of value?
Scarcely ten years after the 2010-2011 popular uprisings in the region there is the need for a methodical and rigorous exploration of the processes that have built and reproduced food dependency in the region. There is also the need to explore the significant and damaging dimensions of the colonial and postcolonial period, cutting across social, environmental, economic and political spheres. This is all the more relevant because, on the one hand, and despite several attempts to reduce it, food dependency and its various local consequences have never been as severe as they are in the contemporary period. On the other hand, the current political context created by what has been called the "Arab Spring" is particularly favourable to this kind of collective thinking and comparative analysis. Indeed, debates on the economic models and more precisely the dominant agricultural and food models are feasible and necessary.
OSAE takes advantage of this post-2011 context to deepen debates and reflections between researchers and experts, activists, policymakers and ordinary citizens in order to contribute to the production of knowledge on those fundamental questions. It is also a moment to propose (a) new agricultural model(s) that breaks definitively with the time weary debate about comparative advantage and food security, and moves instead, towards a policy of food sovereignty based on smallholder agriculture and environmental justice.
Food Dependencies of the MENA Countries: Some Dimensions and Evidence
The issue of access to food resurfaced with the global food crisis of 2007-2008 that shook all countries in the region. In 2008 in Cairo, people died while queueing in front of bakeries. Even if the known number of victims (14 dead) remains relatively "modest" (one victim is a victim too many) and although this did not indicate a situation of famine, the deaths surprised the majority of local and international observers for whom the Egyptian state had long been able to achieve a level of food security through production, import or international aid (bilateral aid, WFP, US Food for Peace). However, the many bread "riots" that exploded in several countries of the region during the second half of the 20th century, including Egypt in 1977, Tunisia in 1984 and Morocco 1981, remain central moments in the course of struggle and history of social movements in the region.
More broadly, this crisis has mainly shown the extent of the food dependency of the MENA countries (among others) and the fact that none of them is immune from the vulnerability generated by the global food and agricultural markets on which they all depend. Above all, it re-launched citizen debates and academic research on rural, food and agrarian issues which were overridden for more than three decades by urban issues. The popular uprisings in several countries of the region, and the determining role played by the rural and peasant populations, as was the case in Sidi Bouzid, from where the first spark (Ayeb, 2018) for the fire which was fatal to many dictators was lit (starting with Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi ...), impose on us an urgent and necessary radical rereading of the different agricultural and food policies at the origin of these evolutions.
Moreover, contrary to what some people believe or try to make-believe, the food dependency of the MENA countries, and the crises inherent to it, cannot be explained by the lack of natural agricultural resources, except for in certain particularly disadvantaged areas. They are neither conjunctural, nor induced by any one specific climatic or economic event. They are the result of long and complex processes, some of which date back to the early colonial period. Knowingly "built" by the colonial and neo-colonial powers, the current food dependency of the countries of the region is continually strengthened and consolidated by the agricultural policies of the states that emerged from colonization. The first Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba declared during a public political speech delivered in Tozeur (in the Southwest) in October 1964 that "to draw from the ground what it can give, it is necessary to take advantage of modern techniques ...The example of the former French settlers is there to edify (instruct) us " (Translated, Gachet 1987, 155). It is through an analytical return to the ideological and historical foundations of food dependency that we can understand the following paradox: As the world's leading producer and second-largest exporter of olive oil, Tunisia depends from abroad for almost the totality of its needs in vegetable oils. Because of this massive export of olive oil, the prices on the Tunisian market are such that the vast majority of Tunisians can only afford it on rare occasions: the price of a litre of Tunisian olive oil on the local market corresponds globally to the daily remuneration of a day's work in agriculture, or construction.
Thus, the policy of "food dependency", imposed or voluntary, also called the “food security policy,” is the result of a methodical and assumed "construction", "justified" by the need to profit from the comparative advantages of a given country, to develop a modern, intensive and extractivist/water-mining agriculture oriented towards export and accumulation of capital, rather than the nutrition of the population. Dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, the concept of comparative advantage still largely dominates and is reflected in the production and export of food and non-food agricultural products grown in southern countries (climates, soils, production costs, ...) and the import of basic food products. The comparative advantages are simultaneously, favourable weather conditions, abundance of natural resources, and poor/miserable wages that keep agricultural prices at relatively competitive levels in world markets. The misery of peasants, of landless peasants, and agricultural workers is, in fact, the true comparative advantage which is decisive and central in the relationship between local and national agricultural sectors on the one hand, and the global food system (Friedman 1982, 1987, 1993, 1994; Friedmann and McMichael 1989), on the other hand. While they benefit from the low prices of agricultural products coming from the South (vegetable oils, rice, cocoa, tea, coffee, ...), especially from the tropical countries, the dominant countries impose high prices on staple foods destined for the global South.
The agrarian injustice the peasants of the region endure is particularly characteristic of those capitalist and extractivist policies. For example, the French colonisation, which in Tunisia was, in many aspects, essentially agricultural and related to the access to and control of land, very quickly decided to create three major specialised agricultural areas to respond to the French and/or European agricultural and food market demands: 1) The Northwest region dedicated to cereals, and in particular to soft wheat, in strong demand by French consumers; 2) the Northeast devoted to the production of wine almost exclusively for export since at the time the Tunisians essentially did not consume it, preferring beer and other artisanal alcohols; and 3) the Centre and the South, more arid, and which mainly served to supply France and Europe with olive oil, and were therefore reserved for arboriculture including olive, almonds, and date palm (Sethom 1993, 112). More than a century later, nothing has fundamentally changed, or has changed but for the worse, and the current agricultural map of the country is broadly identical to that of the early 20th century.
However, the transformation of the agricultural sectors towards the intensive, highly mechanized and modernized model, based on the mining of mostly non-renewable groundwater, systematically oriented towards export, has, in addition to the aggravation and the entrenchment of food dependency, also created a tremendous gap between millions of peasants dispossessed of their natural resources, impoverished and marginalized, and the few great owners and investors who accumulate profits and wealth often utterly out of proportion to local social and economic realities. As a legacy of the colonial era, current land inequalities also reflect profound changes in the modes and relations of production and the accelerated abandonment of peasant agriculture, which aggravates and reinforces the local food insecurity and the national food dependency of these different countries. The "picture" of these land inequalities and their evolutions clearly shows the complexity and gravity of the problem.
In the MENA region, "in 1951, 0.1 percent of landowners owned twenty percent of the cultivated land; ninety-nine large landowners owned 7.3 percent of the agricultural land, while three million fellahin owned only less than one feddan each. These quasi-landless made up seventy-five percent of the landowners but [owned] only thirteen percent of the arable land "(Bush 2016, 6).
Today, 60 percent of the farms are less than one hectare, but farms of more than 10 hectares occupy more than 50 percent of the land (Lowder et al., 2014, 13). eighty-four percent of the farms would fall under the family farming category, but these farms only control 25 percent of the cultivated surface. The level of inequality probably come clearly into view when we more state that 85 percent of farms are owned by farmers with less than five hectares, while about six percent have between ten and fifty hectares and occupy forty percent of the total area (Bush 2016, 7).”
Moreover, after the colonial period and the first vacillations and experiences of postcolonial political choices, the vast majority of MENA countries "suffered," starting from the 1980s, more or less accelerated liberal reforms and structural adjustment programs which utterly ruined the agricultural sectors, and harmed the peasant populations, now considered as constraints to economic development and food security. Thus, while accelerating the integration of the region's agricultural sectors into the global agricultural market and the global food system, Agricultural Structural Adjustment Programs (ASAPs) accelerated the processes of marginalization of small fellahin subject to unequal and savage competition over agricultural and food resources. In just a few years, hundreds of thousands of small farmers and landless peasants have been dispossessed of land, irrigation water and other natural or material resources by large national or foreign investors whose sole purpose is to accumulate ever-more wealth and profits. As an example, the land reform law adopted by the Egyptian government in 1992 (Law 96/92 implemented in October 1997) brutally deprived more than 900,000 peasant families of their land.
Conference organisers now call for contributions that use empirical approaches based on field research and more theoretical reflections and analyses, that ask a number of fundamental questions, and which address paths or sub-themes that are essential in the collective effort of deconstruction of the various processes that have reinforced food dependency of the MENA countries, and more generally from the countries of the South toward those of the North. As indicative and non-exhaustive examples we mention the following sub-themes:
1) The colonial foundations of the postcolonial food dependency. Those being of military, political, juridical, economic and or social orders. Some decisions and choices elaborated in the colonial era are still the basis of current agricultural policies: land, cadastre, mechanization, export (cereals, oils, wines, ...), credit, the introduction of "improved" seeds ...;
2) The construction of the global food system (food regimes and geopolitics) during the first half of the 20th century, the linking of agricultures from the South, including the ones from the MENA region;
3) The Green revolution and the “birth” of the food security concept, based on the principle of comparatives advantages;
4) Agricultural policies and accumulation by dispossession processes: natural resources, monopolies, land grabbing, social relations of production, privatisation of natural, material and symbolical resources, and marginalisation and impoverishment of local peasantry…
5) Food dependencies, environment, and climate change…
6) Capitalist and extractivist agricultural policies, strategies of food dependency and acceleration of the fragmentation / the crumbling of agricultural land, growing pluriactivity of the peasantry, the feminisation of agricultural work…
7) What experiments, possibilities, prospects, and policies existed during the immediate post-colonial period, and what can we learn from them, positive and negative (The Syrian 1966-1970 agrarian reform, Algerian co-gestion, the collectivisation in Tunisia during the 60s)?
8) What is the regional history, whether political or intellectual, of challenging these policies, whether through peasant movements, agro-ecology, etcetera?
9) In what ways and with what kinds of ‘success’ do households manage crises of social reproduction? How important is the understanding of the ethnography of household dynamics in shaping alternative development strategies and policies of transformation?
10) What might policies of national sovereign projects look like and what are the driving social and political forces necessary to promote them?
Ayeb, Habib. 2018. ‘Food Issues and Revolution: The Process of Dispossession, Class Solidarity, and Popular Uprising: The Case of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia’. In Cairo Papers in Social Science. Vol. 34, No. 4. Cairo. AUC Press.
Brun Mathieu, 2019. « Méditerranée – Moyen-Orient : on récolte ce que l’on sème ! » in Confluences. 108. pp. 11-15
Bush. Ray. 2016. "Family farming in the Near East and North Africa," Working Papers 151, International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth. Rome. FAO.
Friedmann, H. 1982. “The Political Economy of Food: The Rise and Fall of the Postwar International Food Order,” American Journal of Sociology, 88S: 248–286.
———. 1987. “International Regimes of Food and Agriculture since 1870.” In T. Shanin, ed., Peasants and Peasant Societies, 258–276. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
———. 1993. “The Political Economy of Food: A Global Crisis,” New Left Review, 197: 29–57.
———. 1994. “Distance and Durability: Shaky Foundations of the World Food Economy.” In P. McMichael, ed., The Global Restructuring of Agro-Food Systems, 371–383. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Friedmann, H., and P. McMichael. 1989. “Agriculture and the State System: The Rise and Decline of National Agriculture from 1870 to the Present,” Sociologia Ruralis, 14: 93–118.
Gachet Jean-Paul. 1987. « L’agriculture : discours et stratégies » in CAMAU, Michel. Tunisie au présent : Une modernité au-dessus de tout soupçon ? Aix-en-Provence : Institut de recherches et d'études sur le monde arabe et musulman, (généré le 25 novembre 2014). <http://books.openedition.org/iremam/2539>. ISBN : 9782271081278. PP 420 (imprimées) & 351 (en ligne). 149-188 (edition ebook).
Lowder, Sarah K., Jakob Skoet and Saumya Singh. 2014. ‘What Do We Really Know about the Number and Distribution of Farms and Family Farms in the World?’ Background paper for The State of Food and Agriculture 2014, ESA Working Paper No. 14–02, August 8. Accessed from http://www.fao.org/economic/esa/publications/details/en/c/220356/.
Sethom, Hafedh. 1993. “Tunisian Agrarian Structures, The Changes They Have Undergone Since The Independence And Their Role In Agricultural Development” (Arabic). In La Revue Tunisienne de Géographie. 1993. 23-24. Tunis. Faculté des sciences humaines et sociales de Tunis 107-136.
Amira BEN ALI
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