Agriculture, Food and Beverage

How can the Middle East meet its food needs?

Chris Arsenault
Writer, The Thomson Reuters Foundation
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Agriculture, Food and Beverage?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Agriculture, Food and Beverage is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Agriculture, Food and Beverage

TORONTO, Sept 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The cost of food imports to Arab states is expected to double over the next 20 years, potentially spurring more violence and waves of refugees, if the region’s farms do not become more efficient, an agriculture expert said.

The Middle East currently imports about $35 billion of food annually, and this looks set to rise to $70 billion in two decades as climate change impacts crop yields and the population rises, said Mahmoud Solh, of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

Increased dependence on food imports will likely mean higher prices for poor consumers, and thus more hunger and increased levels of strife and migration, said Solh, ICARDA’s director general.

“The situation is gloomy,” Solh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Lebanon.

“Extremists thrive in places where people don’t have enough to eat… For the long-term, water is the number one problem.”

A drought that began in 2006, coupled with rising food prices and rural farmers migrating into cities, helped spark Syria’s civil war, he said.

He was forced to flee Syria in 2012 because of rising violence, and left behind a large research station.

Before the war, Syria was largely self-sufficient in grain, and could export in good years, but production has dropped by more than 60 percent since fighting began in 2011, he said.

The broader Middle East should be able to meet its own food needs, but per capita yields for key grains and other staple crops are low across much of the region, he said.

In some areas, yields are as low as 1 tonne per hectare when they should be five times higher, Solh said.

There are some notable exceptions, he said, where improved technology and better management have helped boost production.

In parts of Egypt’s Nile River Delta, farmers have increased yields while decreasing water intensity by using special drills to plant grain on beds, rather than in traditional rows, he said.

Improved seeds bred specially for dry climates are also helping farmers, he said.

Still, productivity gains from new technologies or climate smart agriculture have not raised yields fast enough to keep pace with population growth across several Middle Eastern countries with worrying implications for future stability, he said.

(Reporting by Chris Arsenault, editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

This article is published in collaboration with Trust. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Chris Arsenault is a writer who covers global food security and agricultural politics for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Image: Customers select vegetables at a supermarket in Hanoi. REUTERS/Kham 

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

5 ways CRISPR gene editing is shaping the future of food and health

Douglas Broom

April 3, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum