Wealthy Middle Eastern Countries Lease Lands Overseas To Secure Food

By Steve Furay

Nasr Shenawi owns a farm on the outskirts of Cairo, a small but valuable plot of land where he raises his cows and grows a variety of crops, including corn, dates and squash.

His farm is located alongside a canal where water flows from the Marutia River, which connects to the Nile. For centuries Egyptians have depended upon this water for their agriculture, but in recent years their water supplies have become less reliable, creating large
problems for farmers like Shenawi.

"The government is supposed to give farmers water every ten to fifteen days to give water to the land," says Shenawi. "Sometimes it happens that the water didn't come maybe for a month, and maybe the farmers lose a lot of money because their crops and trees die."

For Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, the future of food security will be dependent upon nations providing a clean supply of water for agricultural use. While Egypt's primary concern is for the delivery of water from the Nile River to the farms, other countries in the Gulf
region are forced to look beyond their own borders due to the harsh desert climates.

Food security became a global issue in 2007 and 2008 when the rising costs of grain and fertilizer began to affect economies. From March 2007 to March 2008, wheat prices around the globe rose on average 130 percent.

Fawzi Karajeh, regional coordinator for the Nile Valley and Sub-Saharan Africa Program of the International Center for Agriculture Research In The Dry Areas (ICARDA), said that food security in Egypt meant the ability to produce enough food for its own people.

"In Egypt they are about to 55 to 60 percent self-sufficient in terms of agricultural products in general," Karajeh said. "Wheat is still about 55 percent, which means they still import over 40 percent of their wheat. Currently, they are producing six million tons but the need is for 14 million tons, so there is a shortage of almost more than half."

Wealthy Arabian Gulf countries faced a spike in food prices as well, but it was a smaller rise in terms of percentage of their income as compared with poorer countries.

Some of these countries began leasing lands overseas as a way to invest in their own future of agricultural production. The result has been deals being made between governments of poorer nations and these investors, where the terms of the deal are often uncertain.

Qatar is one of these countries that have begun investing in foreign lands for their future food security. While oil-rich, less than ten percent of all of its land is arable. The average annual rainfall in Qatar is roughly 80 millimeters, as recorded from 1972-2005.

The Qatar government created Hassad Food Company, a division of the Qatari Investment Authority, to oversee investment in farmland beyond its borders. They have begun securing lease deals in poorer nations like Cambodia, Vietnam and Sudan.

Critics have claimed these deals are neo-colonialism. Opposition to these deals have appeared on the ground: in Kenya, a recently proposed deal that would secure 40,000 hectares of land for Qatar is being protested by civil activists.

Proponents of these deals insist that this is not the case, that they are interested in conducting their business transparently and fairly.

By leasing these lands, wealthier countries will also promise the host country much needed investments in their agricultural infrastructure, including the engineering of advanced irrigation systems.

Hassad Food stated that it is important that their projects not only aid Qatar with its own food security, but also be economically beneficial to the hosts of these projects.

Hamad Al-Saad, an adviser for Hassad Food, noted that often these poor countries do not have money available to invest in developing regions for agriculture production.

"(Small farmers) use most of the money for their daily needs," Al-Saad said. "If they use up their cash money, they can not use it for following years."

Al-Saad insisted the projects are being developed with consideration for the host nation. "You have to deal with all the cultures and have a win-win situation," he said.

Al-Saad also indicated that Qatar would be outsourcing their water and irrigation infrastructure development to private companies.

Qatar has in fact been active in obtaining outside guidance to make sure that they will be working responsibly with the host nations of the land leases. Recently they have begun work with ICARDA, whose goal is to advise Qatar in their development projects in the dry regions.

"Qatar is the only progressive Arab country in the region where they have already took a note after the current food crisis," Karajeh said. "The government has signed an agreement with us and with the center in Germany to help them put together a solid strategic plan."

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has reserved their judgment on these international land leases, citing the fact that not enough information has been made available to assess both the social and economic effects. A long-term study of the process is needed, but without clear terms of the contracts there is little to be analyzed.

"All this needs to be looked into very carefully to have more concrete information and real facts and a better analysis of the deals," said Nasredin Elamin, policy officer for the FAO Regional Office in the Near East, located in Cairo. "Because many times you hear something, and it's reported in the media but on the ground it hasn't happened, or a deal has been signed but hasn't been implemented."

Elamin said most of these deals are still unclear to the public. "The key information missing in most of those deals is what the agreement is, what are the details of the agreement, what are the conditions of using, for example, the land," he said. "How are the local rights
reserved or put into the agreement?"

Small farms like the one owned by Shenawi are an example of importance of traditional agriculture's role in Egyptian society in a world that over the past couple years has seen rises in food prices and declines in water supplies.

Whatever the improvements are promised with overseas money for Egyptian farmland, Shenawi said he viewed it with suspicion.

"They say some people, businessmen, they own a big land and they say they need the water for their land so the government helps them and not the farmers, which is a big problem," he said.

"It's really complicated, but they should help the people and give them the water as the system used to be. The people in the entire Egypt are depending on the farmer for the food, for the vegetable, for the fruit."

With files from Tamader Salman Almalik

Steve Furay is in the Masters Degree program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Journalism, and a communications intern at Agronomy Society of America. He is also developing his own communications company for non-profit community organizations. Tamader Salman Almalik is a senior student at Qatar University, studying International Affairs.