Dr. Mahmoud Solh is Director General of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA)
Wheat is a staple and strategic crop across most of North Africa and West Asia, accounting for almost 40 percent of the region’s total food supply, including 40 percent of its calorific, and 20 percent of its protein intake. 1
However, due to a combination of environmental, policy and human constraints the region is unable to produce enough high quality wheat for its growing population – currently 417 million and expected to reach almost 500 million by 2020.2
Agricultural productivity is hampered by water scarcity: rainfall is generally very low; groundwater extraction rates are mostly unsustainable; and, growing domestic and industrial demand is putting pressure on the amount of water available for agriculture, leading to shortages in irrigated production systems. The region’s wheat production potential is also restricted by a lack of arable land.
These problems will be exacerbated by climate change, since projections show that North Africa and West Asia will be hardest hit by shifting climate patterns. Precipitation is expected to decrease while temperatures will rise, driving ever-increasing pressure on already-limited resources.3
Climate change is worrying in another respect, as it creates optimal conditions for aggressive wheat diseases and pests. A particularly destructive threat to wheat production in the region is stripe rust, a fungal disease that attacks wheat early in the growing season, weakening crops and causing significant grain losses.
Aggressive new strains of the disease are adapting to more variable rainfall and increased temperatures, and are expected to become more widespread and strike more frequently. Farmers have already endured significant losses due to stripe rust when a major epidemic struck the region four years ago.
These constraints are driving an economically unsustainable dependence on wheat imports. North Africa and West Asia are the most food-import dependent areas in the world. In 2010 alone the region imported 65.8 million tons of cereal – an amount expected to grow to more than 73 million tons by 2020.4
Potential crop shortages and related food-price hikes expose consumers to the vagaries of global commodity markets. The poorest members of society who spend a disproportionate amount of their income on food will be particularly hard hit.
1FAO/CIMMYT figures in a presentation delivered by Hans-Joachim Braun at International Wheat Stripe Rust Symposium, 2011. 2Compiled by ICARDA using FAO Statistics (2012) 3FAO AQUASTAT database (http://www.fao.org/nr/aquastat; accessed in 2011) 4FAO Statistics Division, Rome, 2013.