The world's population is growing faster than its capacity to produce food (welcome back, Malthus). In the Middle East, the challenge is compounded by a reliance on food imports and a fast-growing population. In the third of our series on the future of food, we look at the Middle East. For the first piece on China, see here, and for India and southeast Asia, see here.
The MENA region may be a two-tier economic zone made up of super-rich energy exporters on one side and resource-poor states on the other, but on the subject of food, the region faces a consistent predicament: it is home to the least arable land per person anywhere on earth, faces major water shortfalls, and is dependent on food imports.
But just as the rich Gulf states can address economic and political problems using great big buckets of petrodollars, so too can they approach food security in a different manner from the have nots of the region. And no two countries embody the differences in approaches to food security better than Egypt and Qatar.
A few numbers from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to set the scene: Egypt imports more than half its total calorific consumption and the nation gets 35 per cent of its calories from wheat, of which it is the world's largest net importer. That makes the country highly vulnerable to global food price shocks - and also makes its public finances, currently under great stress, a matter of desperate significance: if it can't pay its wheat bills, it starts getting hungry, fast.
And that significance translates into the political arena. By the beginning of 2011, in the last days of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's government statistics body was reporting y-o-y food inflation spiking by 16 per cent in December 2010, with the price of cereals, bread and rice, the backbone of the Egyptian diet, up 21.5 per cent for the year. Less than a fortnight after the numbers emerged, Tahrir Square was occupied, and less than a month after, Hosni Mubarak was an ex-president.
Egypt's next government faces a "simple" challenge: the price of food cannot rise faster than wages under its watch, otherwise people will take to streets again. But boosting domestic food production will come with costs. The government could invest political capital on transforming the country's relatively low-productivity rural agricultural economy - which would come with inevitable opposition. Or it could make major new investments into high-tech modern agriculture, desalination systems and water infrastructure - investments which will be competing with dozens of other investment priorities for the cash strapped new government, including boosting dismally low public-sector salaries and addressing an acute housing shortage.
For Egypt, the politics and economics of escaping the food crisis seem crippling. But for Qatar, they are another opportunity to use huge cash reserves -- more than it knows what to do with, as a US diplomat once quipped -- both on a major domestic industrial project and on building an international empire.
On the home front, the the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP), led by veteran international food economist Dr Mahendra Shah, is driving an ambitious multibillion-dollar program for the country to boost sustainable domestic food production. The pillars of the program are creating a solar energy industry, which will feed into next-generation water desalination systems, that will irrigate advanced desert agriculture systems (think hydroponics and greenhouses with a high-tech kick), with an agro-industrial food processing zone that can value-add local produce into finished goods ready for supermarket shelves. The QNFSP is looking for private-sector partners in each of these undertakings.
And globally, the same empire-building spirit that has led Qatar to help overthrow Muammer Gaddafi, win the rights to host the FIFA World Cup and buy up prized assets across the world is informing its food security agenda.
September's United Nations General Assembly gathering was overshadowed by the theatrics of a Palestinian statehood bid (itself heavily promoted by Qatar), but the Qataris also used the event to call for a new UN body, the Global Dry Land Alliance, to be formed to tackle the common challenges of nations lacking arable land.
Such alliances are the friendly side of the story, but Qatar is also raising eyebrows with huge purchases of overseas farmland. The state-backed Hassad Food is buying up farms in India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam with the aim of producing rice to be sold at affordable prices in the Qatari market. The company sparked calls for a government review of land purchases in Australia earlier this year when it acquired an 8,000 hectare cattle station in the state of Victoria.
Qatar has also set up farming joint ventures in Sudan, whose southern region, now a newly independent state, is home to the largest single chunk of undeveloped arable land in the word.
In a food-security landgrab, who's got the goods? - FT Tilt
The next Middle East boom: food and water - FT Tilt
Africa promises more than a rose garden to Indian firms - FT Tilt
With 1.3bn mouths to feed, China searches abroad for arable land - FT Tilt
Coverage of MENA food producers - FT Tilt