A leaked draft of the latest IPCC report surfaced last weekend, this time warning of the serious food security risks awaited due to climate change. Despite the fact that increased temperatures are expected to improve agricultural conditions in higher latitudes, that will not entirely offset lost productivity in tropical zones, particularly Africa. The evidence also shows that crops are in fact much more sensitive to temperature changes than anticipated. Global productivity of staple crops is expected to decline by 2% every decade, while demand by a growing population is expected to rise 14% per decade in parallel.
Food security is not something the average layman worries about in the Gulf, despite the fact that we grow practically nothing and process very little in the way of food. The very words ‘food insecurity’ usually only bring to mind images of famine in far off places like Somalia, places we can’t and don’t identify with. Yet I’ve often wondered what the grand plan is for feeding future Gulf generations should our substantial imports falter for any reason. Saudi Arabia long ago abandoned its domestic wheat farms due to irrigation costs, and the global food price surge in 2007 cost GCC governments a lot of money in food imports. Surely we can’t just be eating at the mercy of our agriculturally productive neighbors?
Well, it turns out our governments have thought long and hard about this, and have found the solution in buying up their own farms abroad, in places like Sudan, Pakistan and Australia. It’s a bit like direct foreign investment, except it’s in food and cash crops instead of infrastructure or real estate. If we want to get technical, it’s also referred to as land grabbing. The ‘investors’ pick fertile underdeveloped farms with a good water supply and use modern agricultural technology to transform them into highly productive farms whose yields are either sold for cash or used to feed GCC citizens at home. Qatar has even dedicated an entire arm of its sovereign wealth fund, Hassad, to this enterprise.
It’s an ethically dubious, politically dangerous approach. What happens when citizens of those precarious countries where GCC governments own farms wizen up to these deals? What happens when the host governments are too inefficient to secure their own citizens’ food supply, and the only thing separating angry hungry crowds from a foreign government’s productive and lucrative farm is a tall fence? Host countries allegedly promise security forces as part of the deal, but I’m fairly certain that’s just adding fuel to the fire. Countries like Egypt and Sudan are already struggling with restive, vulnerable and impoverished populations unable to accept the rolling back of food and fuel subsidies. What happens when they get wind of these land grab deals is anyone’s guess. In the meanwhile, someone’s got to come up with better solutions for the GCC to feed itself.