African land grab not a cure to Arab food concerns

CAIRO Wed Apr 7, 2010 8:25am EDT

A child (C) looks on at a farm in Eikenhof outside Johannesburg, February 15, 2010. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

A child (C) looks on at a farm in Eikenhof outside Johannesburg, February 15, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

CAIRO (Reuters) - As desertification dries up farmland across the Arab world, the region's governments cannot remedy concerns about food security solely by looking to Africa for agricultural production, a regional expert said.

Desertification threatens 20 percent of the already dry Middle East and North Africa, pushing many states to invest in African farmland to feed growing populations, said Wadid Erian of the Arab Centre for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands.

Dwindling arable land and mounting food insecurity could exacerbate existing conflicts and deter investment in a region where economic marginalisation has long driven unrest.

"Desertification is creeping fast and our response needs to match the pace," Erian, who heads the centre's Land Resources Studies Program, said in a recent interview.

"The question we need to be asking is whether using (African) land is a sustainable long-term solution," he said.

Climate change, burgeoning populations and poor land management have contributed to accelerating desertification, exacerbating Arab countries' food supply problems. Across Arab states and Africa, Erian said, investment worth at least $60 billion is needed to secure sufficient food supplies.

"We expect that if climate change and desertification continue at this pace, in the next five years, we will not have enough food to supply demand," Erian said.

Desertification is expected to take a heavy toll in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, where most of the country's 77 million people are crammed into a strip of productive land along the banks of the Nile river and in its fertile delta.

Egypt, already the world's largest wheat importer, is hoping that private firms signing farmland deals in Africa will ensure steady grain supplies when world markets spiral.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Jordan have invested heavily in Sudan, the region's "bread basket" with its heavy rainfall.

But "land grabbing" in Africa, without ensuring local populations in the world's hungriest continent reap any benefit, is not the sole long-term answer, Erian said.

There is a danger that such investment opportunities will obscure the need for clear policies and funding to combat desertification at home -- and long-term plans for managing the situation, Erian said.

In a region where lushly irrigated golf courses coexist with sweeping deserts and chronic water shortages, a lack of environmental consciousness has made things worse.

Improving environmental management and investing in technology in the agriculture sector will boost investor confidence and attract desperately needed funding for desertification research, Erian said.

Yet costly investments, whose benefits may not be visible for years to come, are often left on the back burner in a region where many states cannot provide for citizens' basic needs.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Erian said. "We cannot continue to deny the elephant in the room."

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