Food policies across the North Africa region was geared towards the expansion of large-scale, commercial agriculture, attracting foreign investment and big agribusiness, export orientation, and a reliance on imports for domestic food needs and production inputs.
This came at the expense of broad-based rural development and traditional food systems and cultures. The result has been the impoverishment of rural populations and mass migration to urban areas and abroad.
The North African region could be an area for cooperation and solidarity among its peoples. But this will not be brought about by states and local elites that profit from the continuation and expansion of the current agro-food model, with its “free” trade and liberalization of local markets dramatically undercutting small-scale producers.
A new study by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the North African Food Sovereignty Network (NAFSN) shows how traditional farming and local food production deteriorated and how food dependency intensified with communities increasingly reliant on imports. More than 50 percent of calories consumed daily in the Arab region are from imported food, with the region spending around $110 billion annually on food imports. The takeover of land, water, and seeds by domestic and foreign capital continued.
The TNI-NAFSN study argues, this food dependency is a result of market-based policies dictated by global financial institutions (the IMF, World Bank and WTO), reinforced by UN organizations (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, UN Development Programme, UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia), and translated into guiding policy frameworks by regional organizations (Arab Organisation for Agricultural Development/the Arab League). National regimes, in turn, followed these prescriptions. This brought prosperity to a few but left many others facing considerable hardship as markets, resources and policies are increasingly dominated by a handful of powerful corporate actors.
The economic dislocation wrought by the pandemic has led to a surge in the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition in a region in which, even prior to Covid-19, a significant share of the population experienced food insecurity.
According to the TNI-NAFSN study, small-scale food producers have been among the hardest hit by the closure of food markets (as in Morocco or Tunisia), declining sales of food and agricultural products, and difficulty accessing key production inputs.
Governments and institutional actors across the region have responded to the health and economic crisis in a number of ways, including intervening more assertively in the trade of key foodstuffs, extending emergency aid to various sections of society. However, these measures did not address the root causes of the crisis.
The TNI-NAFSN study argues the severity of the crisis requires a change of direction — one that is geared towards the rights and agency of laborers and small-scale producers, agro-ecology, and the complete elimination of the structural causes of food dependency and the lack of food sovereignty. By politicizing food systems and putting issues around democratic control at the heart of decision-making, food sovereignty thus offers a radically different pathway out of the current crisis.