West Asia and North Africa: A Regional Vision

by Adel El-Beltagy

Upon invitation of the Egyptian government, the CGIAR will hold its Mid-Term Meeting 1997 (MTM97) from May 26 - 30 in Cairo. It will coincide with the inauguration of the new ICLARM facilities at Abassa, Egypt, and the 20th anniversary of ICARDA based in Aleppo, Syria. The CGIAR meeting will be hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation in association with the Agricultural Research Center (ARC). In this context, CGIAR News is pleased to present this overview of regional aspects of agricultural development, by Adel El-Beltagy, Director General, International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA.

The West Asia North Africa (WANA) region, with Morocco in the west, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the east, Turkey in the north, and Ethiopia and Sudan in the south, is characterized by high population growth, low and erratic rainfall, limited arable land, and severely limited water resources. There are very few possibilities for expansion of farming areas or irrigation. Methods for more efficient and sustainable use of these limited resources must be found.

Poverty, agricultural employment and migration

Poverty in many WANA countries is masked by averaging the poor with the rich. Consider Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates as examples of the major oil exporters. We find large disparities between these and the remaining WANA countries. The oil exporters with only 7 percent of the region's population represent the region's highest per capita GNP, averaging just over US$9,400 which, even so, is only a quarter of the per capita GNP of industrialized countries. The remaining 93 percent of WANA's population has a far lower per capita income. The four most economically disadvantaged states of South WANA (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan) have a per capita GNP of only US$88 that is less than 1.2 percent of the oil exporters with small populations. In fact, 42 percent of the total population of 239 million people has a per capita GNP of less than US$1.0 per day and is thus in the grip of severe poverty.

There is more absolute poverty and incidence of poverty in rural than urban areas in WANA. Even though infrastructure in the rural sector has improved in the last twenty years, there has not been a proportional increase in employment or poverty alleviation. Economic disparities will continue to fuel migration from rural to urban areas and from poor to rich countries both within and outside the WANA region.

WANA's agriculture employs large parts of the population; nearly 50 percent, for example in Turkey and Morocco. Women contribute about half the agricultural labor, well above their share of the total labor force.

Food consumption and production

Most calories and protein in human diets in WANA comes from plant sources --mainly cereals -- with some pulses. Diets have improved in most of WANA over the last two decades, but still lag well behind in quantity and quality of protein. Dairy, poultry and fish production are rising in WANA, but are still far behind those of industrialized countries. Deficiencies of micronutrients in diets of women and children can have permanent negative effects on the quality of life.

In Egypt, agriculture is almost totally dependent on irrigation, but this is not the case for the majority of WANA countries which rely mainly on rainfed agriculture. Grain production has just kept pace with population growth, benefiting from research results and policies aimed at putting these to good use. Per capita consumption of all grains has increased. while pulse consumption has held constant. Income growth and concessionary pricing have enabled the import of grains for food and feed to fill the gap.

The role of pulses in human diet is greater than their small quantities suggest, due to their high protein and energy content and their use in diets of the poorest people as substitutes for animal products. Faba beans, lentils and chickpeas enhance the value of cereal dominated diets as they provide complementary essential amino acids and minerals. Pulses are 'the poor man's meat."

ICARDA's projections of Egyptian grain production in 2020 are based on the five-year average around 1990. Four assumed rates of production growth, and the UN's population projections, allow us to imagine upper and lower limits for per capita production in 2020. Sustaining a 3 percent yearly production growth rate to the year 2020 would be enormously challenging. A zero growth rate, on the other hand, is possible but positive rates of production increase must be expected. A respectable 2 percent growth is achievable, but will require concerted technological and policy advances.

In addition to grains and pulses, Egypt produces and consumes fruits, vegetables, edible oils, meat, dairy products and eggs. Consumption of all foods has risen on a per capita basis. Assuming no change in per capita consumption of all foods from that in 1990, domestic production must grow at well over 2 percent annually to close Egypt's food import gap by 2020. An additional per capita increase in food consumption would make this an even bigger challenge.

Egypt's approach has been to seek the best economic balance of crops by allowing their prices to match the world market. Research has been enhanced by active partnerships with the IARCs; in particular with IRRI on rice, with ICARDA on food legumes, cropping system resource management, and regional cooperation (Nile Valley Regional Program), with lSNAR and IFPRI on. research organization and agricultural policy, CIMMYT/ICARDA on wheat. and CIMMYT on maize. There have been important positive impacts on productivity in these areas.

Other countries of the region face a more serious and challenging situation than Egypt. Pakistan. Afghanistan, Sudan and Ethiopia, for example, import little grain though their population growth has outpaced production growth. Their per capita consumption levels were lower in 1990 than in 1970. The 1990 per capita consumption of all grains was about half of that in Egypt. In such countries, increases in per capita consumption over the 1990 levels are much needed. Per capita consumption, however, is a function not of want or need but of effective demand.and is directly related to income.

In contrast, Turkey's per capita production of grain is nearly double that of Egypt. With abundant rainfall, good soils, and policies promoting private investment in agriculture, Turkey is the only substantial net exporter of grain in WANA but it exports grain not necessarily to other less well endowed WANA countries. Most analysts include Turkey in the WANA aggregate; this has the effect of overstating the region's productive capacity.

If per capita consumption of all grains remains constant at 1990 levels to the year 202O, and the UN population projections prove as realistic as in the past, we should expect a total aggregate grain consumption of about 217 million tons in 15 countries of WANA proper, without the burgeoning populations of Sudan, Ethiopia and Pakistan.

The grain gap in 1990 was of the order of 27 million tons. If the rate of production growth can be sustained at 2 percent per year to 2020, the 15-country grain gap will increase to 70 million tons. If we exclude Turkey and consider only a 14-country WANA aggregate, the 1990 grain gap was about 33 million tons. This deficit will easily reach 86 million tons by the year 2020.

Again, this is a conservative estimate which assumes no growth in per capita income or consumption.

Assuming grain will cost only $100 per ton, 86 million tons of grain per year will cost $8.6 billion, no less than 30 times the size of the current annual budget of the CGIAR system. To visualize the quantity of 86 million tons of grain imports for WANA in 2020, imagine a railroad train 12,000 kilometers long.

The challenges facing these grain-importing WANA countries are formidable:

Natural resource stewardship

Heading the list of resources that are no longer abundant in the region is water. Despite the scarcity of water in WANA, many countries have poor water use efficiency. Open access to aquifers by private wells is common. The costs charged for the maintenance and operation of irrigation structures in agriculture often do not fully reflect the investment, let alone the cost to future generations of exhausting groundwater supplies. Water harvesting and supplementary irrigation are alternatives for increasing and stabilizing yields of crops grown in rainfed areas.

Land itself must be protected from degradation through the use of judicious technologies. Inheritance traditions and land tenure laws have caused land fragmentation, hindering productivity and resource stewardship.

Rangelands in WANA, covering about 30 percent of the land area and providing a third of the diet of some 300 million small ruminants, are typically open to unrestricted grazing and therefore severely degraded. Traditional grazing management, which integrates crop by-products and rangelands, is under serious stress. Hand in hand with this goes loss of soil from wind erosion. water runoff, and other causes and, where it has not been lost, the draining of nutrients through inappropriate management.

A key resource which should not be overlooked is biodiversity. Desirable plant species have been lost or diminished in large areas of WANA. These are the genetic centers of origin of some of the world's most important cereals (wheat and barley) and legumes (lentil, chickpea and forage legumes), and where the wild relatives of these plants are found.

Continued degradation of the natural resource base in this region is hence of grave consequence for all of food security

Wise use of natural, human and capital resources in each country will allow agriculture to make sustainable contributions to food security. This would imply dropping the uneconomic goal of food self-sufficiency in favor of economic self-reliance. Given the fluctuating nature of productivity in rainfed farming systems, optimizing storage and imports of grain must receive greater attention in the future.

WANA countries that are increasingly dependent upon food imports will find their food bills rising as developed countries reduce production and export subsidies under GATT.

Greater integration with world markets will become more urgent. Investments in human capital, natural resource management, research and technology development are essential.

The following are a few important issues on which agricultural research in WANA can contribute to food security and prosperity:

It is no coincidence that ICARDA's mandate is focused on these areas of need for strategic research. This research work is aimed at yielding knowledge (including genetic information) and human capital for the sustained benefit of mankind. Partnerships with and among the national agricultural research systems (NARS) of WANA are a key to success and essential for bringing resources and critical masses of research skill to bear on the issues. This will require concerted efforts of NARS with international research centers like ICARDA.

The challenges to agriculture and natural resources of WANA are tremendous, and must be faced now because agricultural development is needed not only to fill food consumption gaps in future but also to encourage overall development and job creation. Agricultural development is important for reducing poverty, and for conserving and enhancing the natural resources that are vital for the future of people in WANA and beyond.

Return to CGIAR Newsletter Table of Contents