By Nurhidayahti Mohammad Miharja
Despite agriculture’s economic and often overlooked strategic importance, its development in the Middle East has increasingly lagged in terms of new technologies and resource allocation. This has led to an almost twofold increase in Arab agricultural imports from 2001 to 2008. In view of the region’s growing food dependency, MEI organized a panel discussion on “Science and Agriculture in the Middle East” on 6 June. A lively discussion ensued among panelists Dr. Vuyo Mahlati, President of the International Women’s Forum in South Africa, MEI Senior Research Fellows Drs. Lilia Labidi and Ali Kadri, and MEI Research Fellow Dr. Matthew Weiss.
Beginning with discussions on the overlapping issues of gender and rural inequality in South Africa, Vuyo Mahlati argued that trade performance is linked to the economic empowerment of women. Creation of women’s NGOs, for instance, can provide psychological support. Lilia Labidi cautioned that it is necessary to identify local needs and ascertain the best ways to implement such programs. Women’s contribution to food security is significant, in which a 20-30 percent increase in women’s agricultural yields could result in “100 to 150 million fewer people going hungry.”
The panel also addressed water scarcity, another factor contributing to food insecurity in the Middle East. Matthew Weiss suggested various remedies for water stress, including establishing a “strategic grain reserve” similar to a food bank in times of drought and applying the “carbon neutralityconcept” to corporations, in which they would be required to return the equivalent amount of water used in their production process to the community. In summing up the panel discussion, Ali Kadri noted that food security, a potential instrument of control, will “always be on the national security agenda.” There is thus a need to rethink the social structure that has allowed agricultural output to be lowly priced, as prices themselves are not sacrosanct.