In October, 1977, two quietly significant events took place in the Arab East. At a new experimental farm near Aleppo in Syria, agricultural scientists sowed the farm's first experimental wheat crop, and in Amman, capital of Jordan, ministers from 21 Arab states met to discuss integration of Arab agriculture.
Neither event, to be sure, forced any editor to replate his front page. Yet both were of paramount importance. For the agriculturalists in Syria were planting the seeds of what may be a new "green revolution" in the Arab world; and the ministers in Jordan were laying the groundwork for a pan-Arab effort to increase food production throughout the region. Together those events meant that the governments of the Arab East had again joined battle with the land.
Centuries ago, what is now the Middle East was the granary of the known world. From fertile, silt-fertilized farmland by the Nile, from ingeniously irrigated fields in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, from the rich soil of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and from other areas in the Fertile Crescent, ancient farmers supplied much of the world with grain, vegetables and fruit. Gradually, however, war and encroaching deserts destroyed or reduced the region's fertility and its output of basic food crops. By 1976, as a result, Arab countries were importing an estimated 13 million metric tons of food grains to feed their 250 million people.
Some years ago, therefore, Arab governments, individually and collectively, realized that food - even more than oil and industry - was a key to long-term economic survival in predominantly arid lands, and decided that they had to achieve self-sufficiency in all strategic crops.
It was, the governments quickly found, an enormous task. Birth rates in many areas were soaring. Mass migration to the cities was diverting farm labor from the land. Pestilence was ravaging many crops. Much of the land, after centuries of inefficient, often primitive farming, was depleted. And the deserts, in the wake of drought, were again on the move.
As the events in Aleppo and Amman suggest, however, some progress has already been made. Determined to break their dependence on others for food - and to lessen the economic and political problems this implies - Arab governments have been plowing back into the earth some of the vast oil earnings extracted from it. They have built dams, sunk wells and constructed extensive irrigation networks. They have brought in outside experts in modern farming, introduced modern agricultural techniques and, from the West, purchased the machinery and the chemistry needed to supplement those techniques. And, as the Aleppo planting indicates, they have also introduced new high-yield crops.
Even more significantly, they have organized two pan-Arab institutions to centralize and strengthen, future efforts: the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development, responsible for planning; and the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment, capitalized at $450 million and responsible for finance. They have also joined forces with the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, a research organization.
The first of the pan-Arab institutions was set up as early as 1972, but the investment authority, reflecting the new emphasis on agriculture, is relatively new. As is its initial venture: the ambitious attempt to develop the Sudan as the central source of food for the region.
Unlike other Arab states, the Sudan has millions of acres of idle, potentially rich, virgin farm land, along with vast quantities of water available from the Nile. Led by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, therefore, the 13 Arab countries behind the investment authority have drawn up a $5.7 billion program to double the Sudan's production of meat, oilseeds, fruit, vegetables and fish, boost its output of wheat five times and multiply sugar production six times.
To achieve this goal, agricultural science would have to irrigate another 4.4 million acres of land in the Sudan and open another five million acres of rain-fed cropland. Irrigation specialists are also exploring the possibility of draining the 63,706 square miles of forbidding swamp called "the Sudd" which diverts - and wastes through evaporation - billions of cubic feet of water from the Nile every year.
The third organization involved, ICARDA, takes a different tack. Instead of expanding cultivatable land, ICARDA is attempting to increase output from acreage already under cultivation. An extension of the global network of agricultural scientists who helped bring the "green revolution" to Asia, Africa and the Americas with "miracle" wheat and rice, ICARDA, in January, 1977, opened similar experiments with the basic crops of the Middle East: wheat, barley, lentils, broad beans and chick-peas.
The organization's first move was to open a Middle East experimental station near Aleppo - where its scientists planted the wheat crop in October - but that was only the beginning. At other stations, to be opened in the future, scientists from 10 nations will endeavor to cross the most hardy local crop varieties with higher-yielding international varieties in hopes of producing plants that will simultaneously resist disease and drought, tolerate high temperatures and salty soil, give greater abundance of more nutritious foods and, for good measure, appeal to the appetite. None of those experiments is entirely new to the Arab East. Since the 1960's the Arab Lands Agricultural Development Program (ALAD), funded by the Ford Foundation and several Arab countries, has been working hard at improving the basic grains of the region, as well as experimenting with the introduction of the "buffalo gourd" (see Aramco World, November-December 1972). A protein-rich plant that grows wild in arid Arizona, the gourd has roots that can reach water even in deserts.
But ICARDA, which has absorbed most of ALAD's research programs, hopes to carry those experiments even further. Its experts, for example, hope that they will be able eventually to squeeze three or four growing seasons into the calendar, instead of the usual two; improve present Middle East planting, fertilizing and harvesting methods; and combine livestock and food production - traditionally split between Bedouins and settled farmers - by finding crop combinations, such as clover and wheat, that will produce food and feed animals simultaneously.
"We are an insurance policy," said ICARDA director Dr. Harry S. Darling, "against food running short in the Middle East."
The Arab Organization for Agricultural Development is also trying to provide such insurance. Since 1975 the development organization has been working on a Food Security Plan, and it was to review its progress that Arab ministers met last October in Amman.
"The first stage," says Dr. Husni Ahmed Khalifa, one of the organization's senior officials, "was to find out the state of agriculture in the Middle East. Then evaluate the different development trends in each country, and finally, taking into account the advantages of each country, develop one integrated agricultural policy for all the Arab world with the objective of reaching food self-sufficiency."
Although the Food Security Plan is not expected to be completed until 1979, the concept of cooperation rather than competition in agriculture is already widely accepted in the Arab world. "No one country can produce all kinds of crops" says Dr. Subai Kasem, dean of agriculture at Amman University, who foresees an Arab "agricultural supermarket" with Sudan the meat counter, Iraq and Syria the bread counter, Lebanon the fruit counter, Jordan the vegetable counter and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the U.A.E. as the bank.
That, of course, is an oversimplification. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates may indeed provide funds for the agricultural revolution, but that isn't their only contribution. Within their own borders, those countries are also launching important and often advanced agricultural programs. The United Arab Emirates have recently reclaimed some 30,000 acres of land and in Abu Dhabi experts are now experimenting with a radically new method of conserving water. They have laid a thin layer of asphalt in the soil about three feet beneath the surface of a five-acre farm to stop irrigation water from seeping too deeply into the soil and simultaneously prevent salts from seeping to the surface. In Kuwait, another of the oil states that are funding the Food Security Plan, similar ventures are underway - including experiments in "hydroponics," which grow crops without soil - and in Saudi Arabia the government has launched massive programs to improve and modernize its agriculture.
Dr. Khalifa's point, however, is that cooperation is vital. Whatever their individual roles, all of the Arab states must work together if they are to win the endless struggle against difficult climates and arid lands and produce the food their peoples need.