On April 22–23, 2012, CIRS concluded its “Food Security and Food Sovereignty in the Middle East” research initiative with a two-day working group meeting. Sixteen scholars and experts participating in the initiative were invited back to Doha for a second time to share their findings with working group members and to critique each other’s paper submissions. Among the participants were nine of the CIRS Research Grant recipients who gave updates on the progress of their research projects. The first working group meeting took place in November 2011.
The strength of this CIRS research initiative is in its multi-disciplinary approach to the questions of food security and food sovereignty in the Middle East. The participants include economists, anthropologists, historians, and experts in agriculture and nutrition. The diverse range of expertise enables the project to bridge the epistemological divide between the qualitative and quantitative methodologies of social science. Current food security issues and corresponding world events are shifting from a largely economics-dominated model where the debate centered on macro-level issues of international development to one where sociopolitical factors are becoming increasingly active in how food is conceived, valued, and distributed as a human right rather than a market force. The individual papers cover a large portion of the Middle East, with case studies into the characteristics of food security projects of Qatar, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Yemen, Egypt, and Iran, as well as studies into GCC foreign land investments in Cambodia and Ethiopia.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food security as a condition of people having daily, unrestricted access to sufficient and nutritious food that enables them to live healthy lives. The global food crisis of 2008, therefore, was a defining moment for issues of food and the lack of access to it and steered countries’ attention towards aiming for “food security” and “food sovereignty” in the face of future crises. Importantly, the recent Arab Spring protests and political unrest across the Middle East region were partly triggered by rising food prices. Critics point out that such crises are as a direct result of global liberalization policies that allowed for multinational corporations to dominate food production and distribution value chains, making food a commercial commodity and making resistance to such international regimes much more difficult. As a result of current market dominated food systems, a central dilemma is whether it is more important to have a renewed promotion of a domestic production food security strategy, or to promote non-agricultural exports and use the resulting foreign exchange to import food stuffs.
In order to understand all the complex dynamics at work in the global shift in how food is perceived, valued, and commoditized, the CIRS research initiative offers insight into many of these issues. The participants engaged in a historical analysis of food regimes and the major systems that have allocated food resources through different economic, political, and market models. Different means of production since the nineteenth century, including increased industrialization and mechanization of farming and transportation in the early half of the twentieth century had varying effects on Middle Eastern countries’ relationship with food. Food production and distribution took on an international aspect where products gown in one place were exported to another as part of a globalized network of worldwide colonial projects.
Over the decades, countries began growing cash crops that had a comparative market advantage and so food took on a different meaning as something subject to market pressure rather than a means of human sustenance. Increased incomes and rapid population growth led to changing patterns of food consumption and demand for ever diverse types of food, which in turn placed further ecological constraints on land and water. A concomitant lifestyle shift from “traditional” diets based on the consumption of local market produce to “modern” diets based on meat, sugar, and processed foods purchased in supermarkets has had adverse effects on health with increased levels of diabetes, malnutrition, and obesity in the Middle East. Further to its market value, food was used as a political weapon of coercion and a tool of foreign policy, where dominant countries would either encourage or discourage the distribution of surplus food as reward or punishment.
Because Middle East countries import a large percentage of their food requirements, recent volatile hikes in global food prices have had severe adverse effects. At the macroeconomic level, this has contributed to inflation and trade deficits, and at the microeconomic household level, increased prices have contributed to increased poverty and food insecurity. Many countries have responded to the global food crisis of 2008 with decisions to increase domestic production of food. Other solutions include investment in highly controversial “foreign land acquisitions,” to grow food abroad. This may be at the expense of local populations in the host country who may become displaced and further impoverished by often unregulated and unscrupulous land deals.
In conclusion, the participants argued that the recent uprisings in the Middle East and the role of popular resistance to oppressive political and economic regimes may become an important factor of food security scholarship. It is not just the state that is characterizing policy in the Middle East, but on the level of the individual and the household, people are actively becoming involved in the issues that affect them. The scholars agreed that for the past few decades, research into the question of food security had been the domain of international economic and trade bodies that took a narrow and market-driven approach to analyzing food in relation to human existence. The CIRS project is an attempt to engage with a new paradigmatic shift in the field by suggesting that research into food security should incorporate the individual level of analysis as well as macroeconomic and political factors. This cross-disciplinary CIRS-sponsored book adds value to the literature on food security in its response to this changing orthodoxy. After final revisions based on peer comments and suggestions, CIRS will gather the complete chapter submissions into an edited volume to be published in the coming months by a university press.
Participants and Discussants:
Amin Al-Hakimi, Yemeni Association for Sustainable Agriculture; University of Sana’aZahra Babar, CIRS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarRaymond Bush, University of LeedsJohn T. Crist, CIRS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarTahra Elobeid, Qatar UniversityMehran Kamrava, CIRS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarMari Luomi, CIRS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarSuzi Mirgani, CIRS Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarMartha Mundy, London School of EconomicsHabibollah Salami, University of TehranNadia Talpur, CIRS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarFlora Whitney, CIRS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarEckart Woertz, Princeton University
CIRS Grant Recipients:
Elisa Cavatorta, University of LondonJad Chaaban, American University of BeirutHala Ghattas, American University of BeirutShadi Hamadeh, American University of BeirutJane Harrigan, SOAS, University of LondonKarin Seyfert, American University of Beirut/SOAS, University of London Ben Shepherd, University of SydneySalwa Tohmé Tawk, American University of BeirutMary Ann Tétreault, Trinity UniversityDeborah L. Wheeler, United States Naval Academy
Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications