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close this bookCERES No. 097 - January - February 1984 (FAO Ceres, 1984, 50 p.)
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Regional effort helps Near East to boost food output

Countries in the Near East and North African region have been spending about $12 billion annually on food imports, representing more than 50 per cent of their total food requirements. This is a disturbing turnabout for a region that once was a net exporter of food, even if some of the countries concerned have been able to finance the imports easily enough with petroleum earnings.

While rises in population and income account for much of this growing imbalance between food production and demand, the problem is made especially difficult, from an agronomic point of view, by constraints on land and water resources. Less than seven per cent of the total land area of the region is arable. Only three countries - Afghanistan, Iran, and the Sudan - have any appreciable land reserves where cultivation might be expanded. In a region noted for the instability of its yields, any efforts to push production further out into marginal areas can only add to this problem. Improvements in crop production technology suited to local conditions offer the only plausible strategy for reducing dependence on imported foodstuffs.

The need for developing such technology has long been recognized. Back in 1952, the Government of the Netherlands contributed $100 000 to help FAO launch a modest programme of technical cooperation between Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey for the development of disease-resistant varieties of wheat and barley. The results were sufficiently impressive that the programme was expanded to the regional level a decade later with funding support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). By 1971, again with UNDP support, the programme was enlarged to include maize, sorghum, and millet; a couple of years later food legumes and oilseed crops were also introduced under the umbrella of a large-scale FAO/UNDP regional project for the improvement and production of field food crops in the Near East and North Africa. By the time UNDP funding was phased out at the end of 1980, 22 countries were participating in the programme.

With nearly three decades of experience behind it, the programme offers an unusual opportunity to assess the impact of a regional cooperative effort, and a recently published consultant's evaluation, "Field food crops in the Near East and North Africa", has undertaken to do just that. On balance, the report of the consultant, M. Bashir Choudhri, indicated "a very favourable assessment of its achievements". He was quick to point out, however, that the programme was so closely linked with other national, regional, and international programmes, as well as with the activities of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division, that any separate evaluation of its impact was impossible. Indeed, he found that "the particular strength of the project lay in the close complimentary interaction... with other programmes and institutions rather than in the scope and quantity of its inputs in total national efforts." Thus while UNDP allocations of $2.2 million covered about 30 per cent of the total project cost, a major part of the activity was made possible through funds-in-trust mobilized by FAO from various donors, including Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish aid agencies, and the Governments of Bahrain, Iraq, Italy, and Saudi Arabia to a total of $5.2 million.

Since the lack of trained manpower was regarded as one of the main reasons for slow progress in improving crop productivity in the region, training of personnel was given a high priority in the programme. During the period 1960 to 1980 more than 300 middle-level research workers and university graduates from all participating countries were trained at a cost of $5.9 million. "For several countries, "Choudhri reported," this trained manpower now constitutes the backbone of national programmes on field food crops."

The project's impact is easier to assess with regard to individual crops at the country level. In Egypt, for example, the project played a major role in the introduction and improvement of soybeans. During the period 1973 to 1981, soybean yields more than tripled, from 0.75 to 2.50 tons per hectare, while the total planted area multiplied 40-fold from 1 200 hectares to 48 000 hectares over the same period. The project also introduced new sunflower varieties to Egypt, with the aim of reducing importation of cooking oil. Results from 12 000 hectares of plantings have encouraged the Government to plan for increasing the area sown to 100 000 hectares.

In Syria, largely through assistance of the project, there has been notable progress in maize cultivation, with average yields increasing from 1.33 to 2.20 tons per hectare between 1973 and 1978 and total production climbing from 15 000 to 56 000 tons during the same period. The Government is now aiming at an annual output of 100 000 tons.

But there are also problems and frustrations. In Jordan, adoption of high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat has been negligible, mainly because of low rainfall. Under these conditions, local improved varieties perform much more satisfactorily. In several countries there was evidence that while expertise was being strengthened and better technologies developed, there was a serious lag in the transfer of this technology to farmers. Some officials in poorer countries, acknowledging that they were unable to contribute much toward cooperative regional research programmes, said they felt their countries were being neglected by the project in favour of relative more advanced countries that were able to take a lead in contributing to the programme.

Clearly, many gaps remain to be filled and the last FAO Regional Conference for the Near East approved a follow-up regional project to continue the work begun. Mr Choudhri's report has suggested a number of guidelines including the diversification of training programmes to include the advanced specialist and research management level, more emphasis crop varieties for low rainfall areas improvement of seed multiplication and certification facilities, closer link between research and extension. On concern expressed by Choudhri is that there is no institution in the region with both the technical and manage ability to assume responsibility for regional technical cooperation, and therefore urged that FAO continue in this role. "Despite limited arable land resources and difficult environmental conditions," he concluded "there is still tremendous scope for increasing food production in the region."