In 1972, a director of the Arid Lands Agricultural Development Program (ALAD), an organization set up by several Middle East governments in conjunction with the Ford Foundation, told Aramco World that the "greening" of the Arab East - increased agricultural self-sufficiency-must be achieved within a decade. "The problem," he said, "won't wait any longer."
By "the problem," the ALAD director meant the increased need to import food in many Arab countries - a result of slumping crop yields, soaring populations and what was then called "the revolution of rising expectations." This is another way of say ing that as emerging peoples earned more - and learned more - they wanted more, especially in terms of diet.
To find out what has happened since then - during a period when starvation threatened the lives of millions - Aramco World this year asked its correspondents for an update on the greening of the Arab East. Their findings are revealing.
First, although famine in many emergent countries is becoming a horrifying possibility, the peoples of the Arab East are today among the better fed peoples of the Third World. According to OXFAM, an organization to combat famine, close to 17 million children under five years of age, will die of starvation in 1983. In addition, the World Bank reports, 450 million people already live on the edge of starvation -and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that if present trends continue, "the number of seriously undernourished would reach 600 to 650 million by the year 2000...a horrifying increase."
Second, the Arab East, despite dedicated and sometimes inspired efforts, still faces the need to import too much of its food. Indeed, U.S. Department of Agriculture figures suggest, imports could soar to "a record" $35 billion in 1983. Import figures, it should be said, are somewhat misleading since the food being imported is different than it was 10 years ago. Like many developing regions, the Arab East has begun to reach for a higher standard of living, and an important aspect of this is a change in dietary preferences - i.e. richer, more varied foods. As a result some undeniably impressive gains in agricultural output seem less than they actually are.
Furthermore, advances in agriculture take time to surface; it can take 10 years of plant breeding, for instance, to develop a dependable new variety of wheat. And from that viewpoint, the pace of progress since Arab governments, collectively and individually, began to work toward self-sufficiency in food, has been encouraging. As early as 1971, for example, as the push for agricultural independence was just getting under way, Lebanon increased its harvest 125 percent simply by planting new wheat strains.
Subsequent improvements have rarely been as dramatic; indeed, there have been losses as well as gains, defeats as well as victories. Some advances, moreover, have cost more money, used more water and fertilizer or taken more time than expected. In Saudi Arabia, for example, wheat farmers grew close to half the kingdom's wheat needs - more than 500,000 tons of wheat in the 1983 season compared to 30,000 tons in 1976. This is a spectacular increase. But the financial cost has been exceptionally high.
On balance, however, the pluses exceed the minuses. Ideas have become experiments, experiments have become projects and the projects, in many cases, have meant progress. Though self-sufficiency is still in the future, it no longer seems impossible and at a time when some regions of the world fear or face starvation, the peoples of the Arab East are now among the better fed peoples of the developing regions - far exceeding, in terms of calories, Africa, Latin America and the Far East . —The Editors