CAIRO: “The Arab region is facing serious challenges regarding self-sufficiency and food security,” Egypt’s Minister of Agriculture Amin Abaza said at a conference Wednesday.
“Net trade in foodstuffs is now a staggering deficit of $20 billion,” Abaza said at the opening session of the first Arab Forum for Agricultural and Food Investment in Cairo.
The region’s agricultural challenges include “climate change, water scarcity, desertification, low investment in agriculture and agricultural productivity, increased population sizes and the increase in production of biofuels,” he added.
The two-day forum, the first of its kind in the Arab world, aims to tackle exactly these challenges, said Ali Bin Saeed Al Sharhan, president of the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment and Development (AAAID).
AAAID organized the forum, calling on the various representatives to share their knowledge and expertise in the areas of agriculture and agricultural investments.
Echoing the sentiments of other speakers — including Sudan’s Minister of Agriculture and Jordan’s Minister of Finance — Abaza called on Arab countries to unite in facing these challenges by creating a plan for agricultural cooperation that strikes a balance between the national and Arab regional perspectives in implementing policies.
Although the findings of a recent report conducted by AAAID showed that Egypt tops the list of country’s most attractive for agricultural investments, the minister recognized the importance of increasing the incentives for private sector investors by reforming the investment climate for agribusiness.
Saad Nassar, advisor to Egypt’s minister of agriculture, said that the Egyptian government only contributes 3 percent of its total investments to agriculture, while the agriculture sector constitutes 20 percent of Egypt’s exports and employs 30 percent of its workforce.
With regards to Egypt’s food security, he said that the country has an export surplus of fruits and vegetables, self-sufficiency in poultry and dairy products, and a huge deficit in grains, meats and oils.
In attempt to solve what he called a “trade imbalance” in most Arab countries, as in Egypt, Tarek Ben Moussa Zadjali, president of the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development, outlined a 20-year plan for regional cooperation on agriculture.
Originating from a resolution signed by Arab ministers at a 2005 summit in Algiers, the plan involves increasing the competitiveness of Arab agricultural products in the international markets and attracting Arab investments to favorable agricultural areas.
According to Ben Moussa, in the past three decades, each individual country followed its own agricultural economic policies while narrowly taking into consideration the pan-Arab dimension, despite all of the inter-Arab agreements signed.
Past experience prove that national policies have been the biggest obstacles faced by Arab economies, since most of them depend on exhaustible natural resources on the one hand, and are strongly affected by world prices on the other. In this context, Arab economies are incapable of confronting unpredictable crises.
“Lack of coordination of production policies and exploitation of land and water resources, and weak coordination of trade policies, among other agricultural and economic policies lead to increasing ineffectiveness of resource use and weakened Arab agriculture competitiveness,” he said.
Concluding the session, Al Sharhan said that in light of the future challenges facing sustainable agricultural development, and the environmental obstacles facing agricultural development plans and programs in the region, the only way to seize the available opportunities for agriculture in the region is to accelerate the pace of development, integration and cooperation between Arab states.