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Food Security
in the Gulf



Gulf Cooperation Council
Network for Drylands Research & Development

شبكة دول
مجلس التعاون الخليجي لدراسات

الأراضي القاحلة و التطوير

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Food Security:
A Misunderstood Concept in the GCC

Food security is a holistic concept that involves economic, social, cultural, environmental and political aspects.

Nevertheless while the multi-dimensional phenomenon of food security has evolved in the past decades to reflect the wider recognition of the complexities of the technical and policy issues involved, it is by and large a completely misunderstood operational concept in public policy in the GCC which makes coherent discussion more difficult. The contemporary discourse is still characterized by a broad emphasis on the supply-side, reflecting the global perception from the 1970’s when the notion was defined in terms of a food supply that could ensure the availability and price stability of basic foodstuffs at the national and global level. Once the limitations of the approach became clear to researchers and development practitioners in the mid 80ties, there was a radical paradigm shift toward a novel emphasis on the demand side, consumption and the issues of access by vulnerable members of society to food. The novel concept closely identified with Sen’s (1981) seminal theory on food entitlements as well as the introduction of socio-economic and nutritional variables. A further dimension was adopted in the 1994 Human Development Report, which drew global attention to the construct of human security and argued that the scope of security should be expanded to include threats in seven areas of which food security was one integral component. The emerging paradigm was closely related to a rights based perspective to development that has, in turn, greatly influenced the ethical and human rights dimension in contemporary food security discourse. In 1996 the World Food Summit definition reinforced the multidimensional nature of food security by including food accessibility, availability, utilization and stability by enabling policy responses focused on the promotion of livelihood options as well as including the concepts of vulnerability, adaptation and risk management. The concept was again refined in ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World’ progress reports by stating that food security is realized “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO, 2009, p.8) and thus represents the emergence to assess food security as a social, cultural and political construct.

Ultimately, in recognition that the complexity of climate change as a threat, environmental stressor and risk domain will have impacts with dramatic environmental and human consequences, food security could and should however be also seen as the outcome of complex interactions among natural resource management and human responsibility toward sustainable development.

Nevertheless, when putting ‘food security’ into the direct context with authoritarian ideologies and political realities in the Gulf monarchies we will be reminded of Sen’s succinct quote that there is “…no such thing as an apolitical food problem” (Sen, 1982, p. 459). Counterintuitively, the contemporary threat of ‘food insecurity’ in the Gulf economies is not necessarily caused by the inability to supply food, but should rather be considered the result of long-term systemic failures. Ergo, identity politics with nationalistic tendencies conveying the message of power and control have often determined unsustainable ideologies rather than being a reflection of either economic or environmental rationale.

Paradoxically, a recent study analyzed the food security situation in the GCC by applying an apolitical myopic macro level definition, which can be summarized as a country’s ability to finance its ‘food imports’ out of total export revenues and concludes that all of the Gulf economies are “food-secure” (Breisinger et al., 2010, p.3). Ergo the tendency to either misuse the concept, a reality that manifests itself by the frequent terminology application as either the incongruous notion of ‘self-sufficiency’ or representing the demand side perspective as ‘food availability’, or to apply inconsistent definitions is misleading. Therefore a comprehensive food security strategy in the GCC must first address the issue of demand growth as well as the underlying systemic challenges.


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