Food Insecurity In The Arab Countries


By Ghassan Karam

Many Arab countries have large reserves of fossil fuels that make them the envy of the world. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producer in the world , it is estimated that Iraq carries the same potential as Saudi Arabia and has embarked on a plan that could make it the second largest oil producer in the world within less than 10 years. Obviously there is also Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Libya, Algeria and others.All of that is well and good especially since in most cases the reserves are expected to last for decades and possibly centuries to come. The assured continued presence of such an important resource guarantees a substantial flow of funds that will go a long way towards footing the bill for economic and social development not only of the specific countries with the deposits but also for the whole region.

No one can doubt that energy is the basis without which civilization could not exist. But what is at least as important , if not even more so, is the availability of food.  Modern society requires ample energy supplies but without food there would be no one to inhabit the world and demand the energy.  The good news is that there is even an apparent tenuous  balance , on a global bases, between the world’s ability to provide energy and food and the global demand for these two essential commodities  The bad news is that the  most severe case of food insecurity in the world happens to be the Arab world.

A United Nations study speaks in very unambiguous terms about the absolute need for Arab governments to take major steps in order to contain the expected effects of a major food crisis in the Arab countries.  Studies by FAO; Food and Agriculture Organization;show that the Arab world imports over 50% of its caloric import every year and furthermore, this gap is expected to increase substantially at least until 2030.

The Arab countries , as a group, are the largest net importers of cereal in the world; larger than Asia. Arab countries imported around 60 million metric tons of cereals during 2008. One reason,; not the only reason; for that huge dependence on cereal is the Arab diet. On the average the typical Arab gets 35% of his/her daily calories from wheat. This problem could be partially addressed through a different and more varied diet  but above all the major reason for the continued growth in the gap between production and consumption is the above average growth in population.  That is one reason why family planning , if encouraged by government policy would be expected to make meaningful contributions in this area. Lower population growth rate should make it easier to manage poverty, hunger and malnutrition. It is currently estimated that over 31 million Arabs are classified as hungry, that is almost 10% of the population.

It would be very difficult to foresee a scenario that would eliminate food insecurity in the Arab countries for the very simple reason that the Arab world has already overshot its carrying capacity. It is true that the Arab countries do not exploit enough of the available arable land; Arab countries use only about 12% of the estimated 550 million hectares available; but water shortage poses a huge problem. Renewable water resources form almost an unsurmountable problem. Water places a real constraint that is very difficult to overcome. But improved agricultural techniques would help contain the resulting food insecurity gap since the average yield in the Arab world is much below the world average. This is where investments in machines, water management and research could pay dividends.

Food insecurity is essentially felt by the poor. Hunger does not occur only because of lack of food  but is primarily the result of lack of access. It does not do the poor any good to have shelves stocked with food if they do not have the financial resources to purchase food. That is why the substantial rise in food prices two years ago is estimated to have created over 6 million new hungry Arabs.

Unfortunately the global conditions that led to the price increases of two years ago have not been addressed. The world grain reserves are at an all time low, the world population is still adding almost 65 million new mouths to feed each year, the biofuels programs are still being encouraged and above all the level of income in China, India and other developing countries is increasing. Economists have known for a long time that more income leads to greater demand but since the food stocks are rather limited this additional demand is manifested in higher prices. This is the problem of the poor; expensive food but low wages. Lower income Arabs have to allocate up to 65% of their income for food. That is unacceptable.



21 responses to “Food Insecurity In The Arab Countries”

  1. How alarmingly lacking this article is. Why was there no mention of the fact that Arab countries are buying up plots of land in Africa with secured water and arable land resources? This article could have really delved into the wider impact that the food shortage (and potential shortage in some instances) is having on African communities and African food supply. This is a fantastic start Ghassan, but please continue your research.

    1. Ghassan Karam Avatar
      Ghassan Karam


      There are many other things to discuss. No 800 word column can possibly do more than scratch the surface.

      The issue of land in Africa and in the Sudan in particular plus the effect of higher prices … probably call a 1 or two more posts on this subject.

      1. Understand completely. Fantastic start. Please keep writing on the subject!

  2. I have discussed this issue with many of my friends and colleagues. The Arab countries, although rich in mineral wealth are poor in agricultural land and products. We in Lebanon must take advantage of this and focus on a modernized agricultural society (look at New Zealand) and export our great produce to our Arab neighbours. This has to start with the highest levels of govt, and we must have programs in towns and smaller villages that can educate and help small farm owners. Lebanon, due to its rich agricultural land and great weather can become a major food exporter in the region.

  3. Ghassan Karam Avatar
    Ghassan Karam


    I am not at my office right now and so I do not have access to tsome data that I have but I think that yu are too optimistic in your projections for the potential in Lebanon.

    Lebanon has more water than the GCC counbtries but is not considered to be rich in water resources and our area of arable land would not be sufficient to make the 4.5 million Lebanese self sufficient. We sure can produce and export vegetables and fruits but I am not certain that grains fall in that category.

    1. Ghassan is right on that. Grains are very demanding crops and the amount of water required to grow them is just unsustainable (by the laws of supply and demand in the region). Lebanon is actually better off managing their water properly and using the rest for trade or diplomatic developments (especially with Cyprus and Greece). Just about the worst thing that can happen in Lebanon is what has happened in the US with corn becoming so heavily subsidized that it is depleting underground water reserves at catastrophic and almost irreparable rates. We simply cannot afford that.

    2. I am talking about the fruits and vegetables that Lebanon is known for and not necessarily grains. We can take advantage of many new technologies in irragation that will not put any added pressure on our water resources, but might actually help them. We must have an advanced agricultural sector that is both effective and effecient in producing high quality fruits and vegetables that can make Lebanese farmers a handsome profit.

  4. My sources in LBN. tells me that all fruits and vegetables are bought before they are read to pick. When picked are sold and shipped to the Gulf region, thus depriving the locals from their own produce, driving prices higher and unaffordable to locals if you they find any. Additionally, during the summer most fruits and veg. go to high end restaurants and hotels mainly to Beirut. Produced bought as far as Akaar, Doniya, Baalback, and others areas.

    1. Jamil,

      Your sources are correct. The problem that you point out is a huge one and has become larger because of globalization. Cash crops increase hungerbecause of what you mention. Farmers in many countries produce for the wealthy and so the prices of the basic necessities increase. Many farmers in Gaza produce strawberries for the European market instead of say vegetables for the local population.

    1. Bachir,

      So what does the article that you have highled say that deserves the scary headlines and the nonesense that you seem to delight in bringing up although it is at best tangentially related to the discussion at hand.

      It is a fact that in many countries the rate of population growth is greater than the ability of the country in question to provide basic food supplies for its population. It is also a scientifc fact that any system anywhere has a limited carrying capacity and it is also a fact that the whole world( China, India, Bangladesh, Eutrope, Iran, Malaysia, Latin America, Africa…) elieves that the world has to stop population growth if humanity is to have a future. The UN and other agencies all over the world believe that our best hope is the current trend which shows that the worl will peak at around 2050with a population og about 9.5 billion.

      Another fact is that the Arab world currently produces less than half its caloric intake. it is agreed upon by all that the gap will increase to 65% of the caloric intake. We also know that the food prices are on the increase and that the poor will suffer,

      Which of the above you feel is a conspiracy? Who is to benefit from said conspiracy and who is to feed te poor /

  5. Constantin Avatar

    A very relevant article, however I have to stress that the solution starts with Education. Yes the Arabs are the most importers of food in the world and they are the least educated in the world. 50% of the population, the women, have the highest illetracy rates in the world and the men follow their mothers.

    We need educated people who will have enough creativity to exploit all the arable arab land and exploit the seas for professional fishing and manage enough farms producing the meat and dairy products. So we need agricultural engineers, irrigation engineers, damn contructors engineers, veterinaries, etc… There is no reason why the fertile crescent all of it cannot be really fertile. How come the Jazeera area in Syria is becoming dry and people are leaving to the cities? You would think an area between 2 major rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris should be well irrigated and not waiting for the rain to fall. So are the areas in northern and western Syria. In Lebanon we could do a much better job in managing our water resources and have more producing arable land, look at the border with Israel, the Israeli side is flourishing with fields of fruit trees and the Lebanese side, the source of the water, dry and aride, why? Edcuated people are taking care of the other side of the border, and uneducated villagers are taking care of our side of the border.

    This subject is so big and diverse

    that is impossible to deal with all of its aspects. By the way don’t depend too much on family planning, it would not work in the Arab world, a question of religion in which I do not want to venture…

    Any ways thank you Ghassan for raising such a crucial subject.

    1. Constantin,

      I definitely share your view regarding education. There aren’t many sectors, if any, whose performance will not improve once the population becomes better educated. The more informed we are then the more responsible our choices and the more productive we become. Higher education would obviosly impact on food insecurity in a positive way.

    2. Prophet Avatar

      Constantin, Good to have you back,

      You’re so right.

      The Israeli side is flourishing with fields of fruit trees and the Lebanese side, the source of the water, is very dry.

      But it isn’t ONLY because “uneducated villagers are taking care of our side of the border”. It because of Lebanese authorities’ failure, over the years, to develop any program to educate our farmers ,or to implement modern and proven methods in planting or farming. The government has to yet to attempt to manage our water supply. Most areas don’t have running water yet. The Lebanese Government has failed to defend the area for years anyway. Lack of support for farmers was the least of their worries

      The instability, and the 20 years of occupation had prevented any local efforts to improve the situation. The Israelis systematically uprooted large part of the forests, didn’t allow farmers to plant anywhere close to the border.

      I’m sure Israeli farmers have ample support from their government.

  6. Sebouh,

    The ethanol , as you mentioned, turned out to be a disaster. Many studies showed that at best the enery required to grow and transform the corn into ethanol is at best equal to the energy found in the final product. No energy is gained. Some studies even suggested energy loss.

  7. Abou Daoud Avatar
    Abou Daoud

    Producing Methane out of crops waste allows farmers to be completetly independent of fossil fuels AND electricty from the grid. The Methanol production suggested by G.W.Bush was maybe intetionally the worst. However Methanol rarely goes over 40% efficiency.

    1. Abou Daoud,

      I would like to stress that Methane is essentially natural gas and that is totally different than ethanol which is an alcohol that is fermented from corn and other material.

  8. L. King Avatar

    Or you might consider hiring making peace with Israel and hiring Israelis as consultants. Face it, even in your worst version of propaganda you guys deal with far worse Arab tyrannies than Israel. Not to put too fine an edge to it, but you guys need to lose a lot of rhetoric and start dealing with reality. The only reason you won’t consider talking with Israel is because the place is run by Jews.

    If you can deal with Assad, Qadaffi, Bashir, Ahmadinijihad, and the Royal families of the Gulf, why be too proud to discuss feeding your children and grandchildren with Bibi.

    You might also consider what we in the West called “Planned Parenthod”. Encourage people to have fewer children by public support for birth control, at least until local food production is enough to meet local needs. Climate change is the writing on the wall. At some point there might not be a food surplus elsewhere to meet your needs.

    Go, talk to the Jews. It would be the smartest thing you ever did.

  9. Constantin

    “look at the border with Israel, the Israeli side is flourishing with fields of fruit trees and the Lebanese side, the source of the water, dry and aride, why?”

    Well, thanks Constantin for having the courage to say so. Why not ask the Israelis for advice? They would be more than happy to be of service.

    About family planning, immigrants to the US understand very quickly that fewer mouths to feed gives a better chance for education and a better future.

    1. L King,

      So are you saying that Israel does not have food insecurity? Hers what The New Israel Fund had to say about this: “Food insecurity is a growing phenomenon in Israel, resulting from the dismantling of the welfare state and the cutback in social allowances and budgets.”

      1. L. King Avatar

        No Ghassan. What I’m saying is that the Israelis have the only country in the world world where the desert is retreating, not advancing. As a country they are self sufficient in food and export more than they import. They have higher crop yields than any Arab country.

        Lebanon itself is lush and rich in land. It could afford to ignore the rest of the Arab world. One could even question whether or not Lebanon is Arab – it certainly is not typical of the region. It has its own identity.

        In general though the Arabs have a lack of arable land and an excessive growth of people. Sure the Israelis have problems – who doesn’t? What they also have is ingenuity and solutions. The best economic and innovation engine in the region is right next door to you.

        The question is – do you think your children are worth putting aside ingrained prejudices?

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