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Raising food production: an opportunity to address the Mediterranean’s migrant crisis?

May 17,2015

Sustained investments in agriculture are needed to raise production and deal with chronic food insecurity.

Dr. Mahmoud Solh, Director General, ICARDA

Like many, I have been shocked to witness the rising numbers of migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe. Thousands make this perilous journey every year – and all too often they can end in disaster.

There is much the international community can do to support migrants in the short-term: strengthening the capacity of search and rescue options at sea; establishing more effective strategies to identify places of disembarkation and migration routes; enhancing reception facilities; and providing support to ensure the safety and dignity of those found not to be in need of international protection.

However, we must also look at the causes of this migration to find lasting solutions. The conflict and instability we have recently witnessed across North Africa, West Asia, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel are undoubtedly one factor. But behind this volatility and desperation lie persistent poverty, under-development and rising food insecurity.

The Middle East and North Africa, for instance, has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, and the situation is even worse for the region’s youth who are forced to contend with an unemployment rate that is 80 percent higher than the world average. 

Food security will also remain a challenge – until the Middle East and North Africa deal with their rising dependence on food imports. The region is the largest food importer in the world, and globally, has the most significant food deficit.  

Raising food production and improving livelihoods will address these problems – not only tackling the chronic food insecurity that plagues these regions, but generating multiplier effects with the potential to boost employment and incomes, and in turn, transform rural economies.    

A practical strategy to raise production

However, the question remains – how? How can we raise food production and improve livelihoods against a backdrop of serious climate change implications, including rising temperatures and increasing water scarcity, and strengthen development so that rural communities prosper and avoid the insecurity and destitution that force millions to leave their homes and their families each year?      

The challenges are complex, but ICARDA’s research and experience tells us that this transformation is possible. There are proven, practical solutions available with the potential to transform agricultural production and deliver positive and sustained gains for communities in even the most marginal environments.

These practical solutions follow an integrated approach that takes into consideration the full constellation of factors that affect agricultural production systems, including sustainable natural resource management and inputs; crop and livestock genetic improvement; and socio-economic considerations.

What does this mean in practical terms? The options include improved crop varieties that can resist temperature extremes, drought, and disease; diverse cropping and mixed crop-livestock systems that can bolster food security and increase incomes for rural communities; and higher water productivity – the introduction of deficit and supplemental irrigation, and water harvesting that are guaranteed to deliver ‘more crop per drop.’   

Improved varieties of strategic crops such as barley, wheat and food legumes are helping smallholder farmers to generate higher yields despite an increasingly harsh environment. ICARDA varieties released to developing countries over the past three decades generate benefits of approximately 850 million USD every year.    

ICARDA has recently developed ‘FIGS’ – or Focused Identification of Germplasm Strategy – a new approach to mining agricultural gene banks that helps crop breeders and their managers achieve faster and better-targeted pinpointing of improved crops.

Improving the genetic stock of livestock is another option. Alongside improved animal nutrition and preventative veterinary care, farmers in Afghanistan and Pakistan have seen an 80-200 percent increase in milk and meat production, the production of high-value products such as mohair and cashmere fiber, and benefits worth over 650,000 USD.

Given the high levels of water scarcity that threaten the world’s dry areas, water-saving technologies are also important. Field trials in several countries have demonstrated massive increases in wheat and barley yields with small quantities of supplemental irrigation – from 4.6 tons per hectare (t/ha) to 5.8 t/ha in Morocco, and 2.2 t/ha to 3.4 t/ha in Iran. We should also tap into indigenous knowledge to benefit from the resilience and adaptability of dryland communities – using this knowledge to construct effective and low-cost water harvesting structures.  

The need for greater investment

Unfortunately, despite having the solutions, agriculture – the backbone of most dryland economies – is not a national priority in most countries, and globally does not receive the attention it deserves. The sector is still not included in the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC), for instance, despite being a major contributor of greenhouse gases. This needs to be addressed.      

Investment in agricultural research for development is also insufficient – the sector fails to attract the funds needed to generate and disseminate a critical mass of productivity-enhancing innovations. We know what works, but need additional investment to scale-out new technologies and educate farmers on more sustainable practices that are capable of delivering gains without high environmental costs.  

Reversing this will not be easy – but the consequences of inaction are too difficult to contemplate. Food insecurity, instability, and poverty, already widespread, threaten to become defining characteristics of the marginal dry areas across North Africa and the Middle East. Unless we act now to boost agricultural productivity, our efforts to stem the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean will be futile.