Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Food Security in the Middle East

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Food Security in the Middle East

Article excerpt

FOOD SECURITY IN THE MIDDLE EAST Edited by Zahra Babar and Suzi Mirgani New York: Oxford University Press, 2014 (xxiii + 379 pages, appendices, notes, index) $35.00 (paper)

It has been remarkably undernoticed that many of the recent protests which unfurled from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa were rooted in what used to be called the agrarian question. From indebted former farmers in Sidi Bouzid to those in flight from historic drought in southern Syria, rural penury passed into periurban unrest. The massive rise in food prices in 2008, then again in 2010, coupled with massive oil price increases, attracted more notice. The commodity spike stressed state budgets in oil-poor countries like Egypt and Jordan. At the same time, it pushed those suddenly dealing with rivers, not rivulets of oil revenues-the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council above all-to firm up domestic social pacts, while casting about for farmland abroad.

Scholarly attention has tracked political-economic upheaval. It is within and against this context that one ought to read Food Security in the Middle East, an important collection of essays edited by Zahra Babar and Suzi Mirgani. The book emerged from a series of workshops held in Qatar to discuss regional food issues in the aftermath of the 2008 food crisis. As with many such volumes, the contributions are uneven. Some are excellent. Some are not. One can find the dominant lens in the book's title: "food security." The term comes from the world of policy practitioners, and like many such terms, it is open to interpretation, as the editors note. The case studies they select, ranging from the logic of land purchases by Gulf states, to Jordanian state subsidy policy, to transformations in Egyptian state agricultural policy, reflect the many meanings embedded in the term. The chapters' approaches run across the methodological, disciplinary, and normative spectra. They move from equilibrium modeling, to historical accounts of agrarian relations, and from calls for profound change in the social structure of the countryside to counseling the GCC states on how to protect their investment portfolios.

Babar and Mehran Kamrava frame the book's central historical inflection point-the food crises-as the result of "supply-side dynamics" converging with "demand-side pressures pushing up prices" (2). They list a potpourri of factors. Among the former are "speculative investment in commodities," while among the latter they include shifting consumption patterns, a quiet reference to the meatification of diets in the global South, a class-based phenomenon (ibid.).

The editors perhaps underplay the role of speculation in the global commodities price boom. A subsequent synthetic chapter by Eckart Woertz offers a corrective, as he lists the series of regulatory changes that laid the ground for the commodity-market chicanery that in turn led to the massive impoverishment detailed by other authors (36-37). Woertz's chapter, bringing together a range of research and theoretical frameworks from food-regime theory and elsewhere, is one of the book's strongest. With analytical rigor, geographic breadth, and historical depth, he moves from the UK grainimport system from settler states like the United States and Australia, to the role of the Middle East Supply Center in stabilizing regional cereal supplies during World War II. His work clearly falls on the side of the book that centers smaller-scale rural development. He writes of the need for a focus on political and social rights to food and a move away from "technical fixes" (37). But he also criticizes rural romanticism and notes that there is a need for "mineral fertilizer" and other capital-intensive inputs, which he also identifies as technical fixes. But this perspective is far from uncontested. An engagement with the literature on agroecology would have helped, as this literature has shown that yields for noncapital-intensive farming can be as high as that of capital-intensive farming (Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer, Coffee Agroecology, 2015; Miguel Altieri, Agroecology, 1987). …

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