Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Food Sovereignty in MENA Region under Threat

Food sovereignty in the MENA region faces a dismal future since the era of luxury and abundance of the 1990s is coming to a close.

Food Sovereignty in MENA
A picture taken on on April 4, 2023, shows the dry Chiba dam near the city of Korba in northeastern Tunisia. The North African country’s dams are at critical lows following years of drought. FETHI BELAID / AFP

Dana Hourany

The yearly observance of World Earth Day on April 22 serves as a reminder of the ecological progress made and the significance of protecting the planet’s resources for coming generations. In the MENA region, it also serves as a sobering reminder of the many environmental issues largely ignored by governments and authorities.

The MENA region has been particularly hard-hit by water scarcity, making it one of the “world’s most water-stressed,” according to experts. For residents of this region, more climatic effects like rising temperatures, desertification, population expansion, and food insecurity are anticipated.

In fact, the region’s agricultural economy is experiencing significant strain from these changing conditions due to its reliance on climate-sensitive crops and the high number of residents who live in urban coastal areas that are prone to flooding.

Despite the regional temperature variations, the Middle East is now more at risk than ever, particularly with regard to its agricultural sector, due to government officials’ incompetence and a lack of adequate sustainable planning. Overall, experts concur that unless immediate remedies are put into place quickly, countries in the region face a bleak future in terms of increased food shortages as well as potential environmental catastrophes.

Climate change in MENA

Numerous nations have experienced decreased agricultural productivity as a result of rising temperatures, which has raised food costs and led to social unrest. Observers note that the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 were sparked by a confluence of economic hardship and discontent with the country’s current leaders.

Furthermore, the climate in the region is becoming increasingly hostile for agriculture, with hot temperatures and less precipitation resulting in more droughts. Rising temperatures of merely 1.5-2 degrees Celsius could reduce harvests by a whopping 30 percent.

Predictions suggest that come the middle of this century, crop failures could range from 1.5-24 percent in the Maghreb and 4-30 percent in parts of the Mashreq. Maize and legumes are expected to be detrimentally affected, while production of other produce is already proving difficult.

Between 50 mm in Egypt and 661 mm in Lebanon, the southern and eastern Mediterranean region has an extensive spectrum of rainfall. For semi-arid areas, the mean annual rainfall is typically around the lower end of what would be considered normal. In many areas of these dry regions, successful farming is challenging due to the scarce and inconsistent water supply.

Ecosystem changes have a deleterious influence on rain-fed farming systems. According to current projections, the amount of precipitation in the region is predicted to decline. Additionally, there will be an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, which may make many of the current agriculturally productive areas unsuitable for growing crops.

According to the World Bank, many countries are also seeing a significant population increase, which poses a challenge to the limited amount of land that can support it. Cities are being pushed to grow into arid or agricultural areas as a result. According to predictions, the existing urban land area will need to be increased by almost 50% by the year 2050. Some nations have taken steps like developing arid lands, but this process has its own drawbacks including increased strain on water resources and unreliable results.

Although the Gulf countries generally exhibit better land governance than other nations in the region, there are still notable inefficiencies in resource management, whether it be the development of water-consuming agriculture in the desert or sizable swaths of undeveloped land in urban areas.

Different struggles, one problem

North Africa

Long hailed for its greenery by Tunisian and Arab poets and singers, Tunisia is described as a land of whales (fish), yield, and olives in the late renowned Syrian-Egyptian composer and singer Farid al-Atrash’s song Bosat al-Reeh. Agriculture has traditionally been a key component of Tunisia’s economy; it is home to a region formerly known as Rome’s Granary due to its abundant production of wheat and barley.

However, a number of current threats, such as desertification and soil erosion, are posing a threat to residential regions and agricultural areas, and environmental pollution is increasingly posing a threat to agriculture through air, soil, and water contamination. The latter has the greatest impact on marine fishing.

North Africa is generally highly exposed to the effects of climatic and environmental catastrophes. Water is often scarce, land quality has decreased, and livestock numbers are dropping noticeably.

These environmental issues are having consequences on agriculture (including grazing) and fishing, leading to further poverty and food sovereignty erosion. Rural areas constitute over half of the population in North Africa, comprised mainly of small-scale farmers and farm workers who suffer some of the worst impacts from these environmental crises.

Although the agricultural sector presents a great chance for women’s employment too, it also opens up the door to exploitative work and abuse.

According to numbers, there are five million women who work on the land in Egypt alone. In addition to making an income, 40% of these women also provide unpaid care work for their families. Additionally, the industry is becoming increasingly reliant on girls as young as eight years old, who are frequently subject to extremely unfavorable and exploitative conditions.


In Iraq, rapid urbanization and population increase are further compounding the harsh realities of climate change, such as heat waves and droughts.

As a result, water resources are under constant stress and there is competition between people in metropolitan areas and those who utilize it for agriculture. In addition, protracted hostilities have exacerbated gender disparities in both rural and urban areas, with smallholder farmers being negatively impacted by a lack of governmental investment in water supplying infrastructure.

Despite its abundant natural resources, environmental degradation throughout Iraq, puts the nation at further risk of possible catastrophes like extreme droughts and food insecurity.


According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 23% of the population works in agriculture either full- or part-time in Lebanon, making it one of the biggest industries in the nation. Syrian refugees who fled the onset of the crisis in their country currently comprise the largest segment of the agricultural workforce.

The country’s economic crisis has resulted in a significant reduction in farmers’ incomes. Despite accounting for 5% of Lebanon’s GDP, little attention is paid to the industry’s needs by Lebanon’s successive governments. This has led to agricultural production only satisfying 20% of local demand – meaning that most food products must be imported into the country.

An unknown future

According to Serge Harfoush, staff member at Buzurna Juzurna Organic Farming School in Lebanon, weather and climate fluctuations will have visible effects on the agricultural industry in the coming months.

“The winter of 2023 was unlike any I have observed in seven years; it started later than usual and ended swiftly, prolonging the period of the warmer months. Consequently, water resources will be disrupted,” he told Fanack.

According to Harfoush, the lack of precipitation and snowfall this winter may have resulted in the depletion of underground reservoirs, impairing the soil’s water table. This consequently can lead to aridity in the dirt and require additional irrigation.

“Farmers are at risk of facing significant losses due to arid soil conditions. This is particularly concerning for those who rely on crops that require high levels of water and plants that can survive the hotter summer months in higher altitudes. In addition, there is the inevitability of more frequent wildfires and other damage to the ecology,” he noted.

The expert claims that while it is impossible to predict the full extent of harm that climate change will cause to various nations and communities, concerns about agriculture are growing, especially in the Middle East and North Africa where environmental issues have not received enough attention. He argues that current neoliberal economic systems prioritize profit over the state of the environment and the labor force. This leads to a vicious cycle of unhealthy food production and subpar output.

What’s next?

Achref Chibani, Nonresident Fellow at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington notes that the agricultural industry in the MENA also suffers from the lack of protection programs for farmers.

When crops fail and much water is needed to compensate for the extreme heat waves, farmers are typically not given alternatives or solutions. This is especially true for farmers who rely on water-intensive seeds, he told Fanack.

“Due to extreme climatic changes and concerns with food security that are already starting to surface, North African nations like Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia will face some of their most difficult challenges,” Chibani said.

In Tunisia, the rising cost of food brought about by lack of rain has put dairy farmers in a precarious situation. Milk and butter are disappearing from shop shelves as farmers struggle more and more to feed their herds. Many farmers are being compelled to sell their cattle in order to survive.

The environmental specialist cautions that wasting resources and growing crops in unsuitable locations, like strawberries in Tunisia’s case, will have disastrous consequences in a relatively brief amount of time.

“Rising food insecurity in the years to come will be unavoidable without long-term strategies, which include aid programs and fair pay strategies for farmers,” Chibani said, noting that one major issue facing farmers is the disconnect between them and governing bodies, leaving many feeling disenfranchised.

According to the expert, climate change has a range of effects on society, but the most serious one could be a mass departure of young people who believe their future in the region is bleak. In addition, declining returns and decreasing benefits may discourage farmers from working the land.

In addition to financial support, he said, “Farmers need modern technology to increase the efficiency of their work and guidance to determine, for example, what crops could use less water.”

According to Chibani, the Middle East and North Africa region faces a dismal future when it comes to food sovereignty particularly since the “era of luxury and abundance of the 1990s is coming to a close, and we will soon suffer the consequences of failed policies from the previous decades.”

As for Harfoush, he believes that the next generation’s understanding of the environment and access to information will enable them to gradually undo the errors made by their forebears.

Nevertheless, he claims that “less theoretical talk and more active work are necessary.”

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