The global food crisis of 2008 gave food importers a significant scare, and very few felt the shock more keenly than the water-scarce, oil-rich countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council. As these states rely on many of countries for their food sources, a year like 2008 in which food prices spiked can be a cause for terror. Because of the scarcity of arable land and high water stress levels, their high dependence on imports (60-90%) makes them price takers in the market.
As a response to their vulnerability to food prices, Gulf countries took action in creating bodies to improve food security, and measures were implemented such as increased domestic production and storage as well as the controversial land leases abroad. But are land leases really the right option?
Another topic to keep in mind is the psychological implications food security can bring about, and the implications of such thought? In 2008 and 2011, some researchers found correlations between the food price spikes and the conflicts around the Middle East and North Africa. When food prices hit a certain level (and other grievance factors are commingled into the equation), people tend to turn to violence because their desperation hits a level at which they have nothing else to lose.
Clearly, easily accessible (or affordable) food is a worry for many people. It’s life or death. Food is a basic need for human beings, and linked to food is the need for land. Land provides the foundation for many things in life: as a place to build shelter, grow and harvest food, plus many other provisions and natural resources that propel being. Thus, seeing countries from the Gulf invest in arable land isn’t too confusing or hard to understand because land sustains life. It seems to be pretty logical (even though there are many proponents of this strategy because of the negative implications that can be linked to it). But what will this really do in securing food for them in case of a crisis? How effective will it be to own land in somebody else’s backyard?
In many cases of foreign land investment, the countries that are invested in are food-insecure themselves. It is not clear that the investor countries would be able to access the food that they theoretically own in a crisis, as it can be hard to believe a country starving for food would allow much of it to escape its borders, regardless of who owns it. A hungry individual (or group of people) probably isn’t going to let a necessity to life just walk away from their own backyard.
Another dimension worth noting is the power politics that could come into play when food insecurities arise, as this is another psychological implication to account for. When a basic human need becomes commoditized, the countries of the world will begin to flex their muscles and things will likely get really ugly. Just look at a case from the past: as access to affordable oil was potentially jeopardized by the politics between OPEC members (Kuwait and Iraq), the United States intervened in order to protect its interest (as well as the EU and Japan’s) in the commodity, and the result was the Persian Gulf War. This may not even be the best example, but I have a feeling it would pale in comparison to the political and social ramifications in the case of a food crisis – because we need food to live. Hunger leads to desperation, which can lead to violence, as mentioned before, as almost any means to survive seems justifiable while in such a state.
This creates an urgency to become more resilient and independent of international trade for food. The Gulf States seem to have this idea as well, because more investments in domestic production capabilities through technologies like hydroponics and desalinization can be seen in recent years.
Hopefully the scare of a food crisis will be subdued through intense preparation or adaptation. The most powerful weapon we know of is the human brain, as it tends to be the driver for much of the evil (as well as the good) seen in the world. Maintaining a healthy psychological state amongst the world’s inhabitants in regard to food safety is key to keeping peace and perpetuating human development.
Gulf States Strive for Sufficiency, Financial Times “The Future of the Food Industry,” Nov 2013