Ensuring food security in the region

Sky rocketing food inflation partly triggered by shortages and rising transportation costs have curtailed food availabilities throughout many parts of the world. At times, this has led to significant social unrest and international political tensions.

By Marie Lillo (Gulf Angle)

Published: Sun 29 Jun 2008, 11:58 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:24 PM

For the GCC states, ensuring medium to long-term food security has to be a top policy priority, in order to avoid similar difficulties. As it stands, according to a Gulf Research Center (GRC) report on food inflation, in absolute numbers Saudi Arabia is the largest Arab food importer in the GCC followed by the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. In 2007, total GCC food imports hit US$10 billion, US$3 billion of which accrued to the UAE.

When it comes to food security, Africa has gained a new degree of strategic importance. The continent is seen by many as providing a short- as well as long-term answer to the current crisis. Already, countries such as China have begun to look earnestly into this direction, generating new dynamics of power with the onset of a competition for farmland and investments in agro-businesses. As a result and in the light of this race for supplies and the possible longevity of the crisis, the GCC states should think of establishing a strategic partnership with Africa to prepare for future challenges in the region.

Entering the race to secure food reserves as land in China becomes scarce, its water more polluted and its population growth soars, the necessity to diversify its food imports is crucial. Consequently, China has taken a lead in efforts to boost Africa's farm production. At the China-Africa summit in November 2006, it was agreed that Beijing will set up, among many other projects, 10 agricultural centres in Africa.

Some of the GCC countries have also started to react to the food crisis as its effects are already felt by the local population. The GCC states are particularly vulnerable to food shortages as their agricultural sector, which is already limited in size and capacity, is declining and suffering from water scarcity. This is occurring at the same time that the GCC countries are experiencing exponential demographic growth. Consequently, authorities have called for the securing and building up of food reserves by diversifying sources of imports as well as agricultural investments.

However, the clock is ticking and the competition for influence in supplier countries is getting fiercer. Within a short time, it will be harder to secure farmlands in Africa and elsewhere. Given the rising competition, there is a urgent need to look at how the GCC states should approach Africa and how the Arab Gulf states can build a more lasting strong partnership with African countries.

In order to ensure that their investments are having the maximum positive impact both for the GCC countries and the African recipient nations, the GCC states should carefully plan their response to the pressing needs of their fast-growing economies in order to ensure that their activities do not turn into a damaging venture for African nations. Indeed, foreign investments can sometimes prove harmful for the recipient countries as self-interest prevails and the impact on the local population is overlooked. The result of such policies is discontent and instability which is not in the interest of the investors.

For example, oil trade has not always been a blessing for some African countries. The main problem lies in the fact that the wealth generated by the oil business has failed to benefit most of the population and the intrusive process of oil extraction has drastically reduced the ability of communities to engage in traditional economic activities. In the case of Nigeria, the Niger Delta holds the largest mangrove forest in Africa but polluting oil operations have decimated its ecologically crucial habitat making fishing and agriculture no longer possible in many communities.

To avoid a repetition of such negative outcome, the GCC states must focus on building a mutually beneficial and solid strategic partnership with Africa in order to answer needs and interests on both sides. This would include both opening channels for food security supply to the GCC countries while at the same time supporting infrastructure development in African nations so that growing food supply can provide for both local as well as external demand.

Investment in the African agricultural development would play a crucial role in building this partnership. It would directly profit the development of some regions especially if investments are dedicated to small scale farmers as roughly 65 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa's population relies on subsistence farming. Their production though suffers from a substantial lack of infrastructure such as good roads, irrigation systems or agricultural techniques. Heavy investments in infrastructure and technology would thus answer the demand for food in Africa.

Such need is particularly pressing as the population of Africa is growing exponentially. It is expected that by 2040, its population will have doubled, reaching 1.4 billion people. As a result, unless food production is increased to meet future local demand, political instability will occur thereby threatening both outside investment and future supply. To avoid this, GCC investment should be worked out in close partnership with African nations in order to ensure that money is being spent on meeting local requirements in conjunction with the priorities of the external investors. To focus on short-term rates of return is both insufficient and dangerous.

As Africa becomes the stage of a renewed international race for natural resources, the GCC states that are becoming part of the game must look at the continent as a long-term partner and not as a quick fix for a burning crisis. Both regions have distinctive self-interests which nevertheless can be served and pursued for the benefit of all.

Marie Lillo is a researcher and the GCC-Africa moderator at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai

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