“The coronavirus crisis facing the globe has demonstrated how important it is for states to be independent and self-sufficient and thus capable of providing basic food items to the population”, said Dr Sawsan Majali, the moderator of the Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development’s seventh session, held on Thursday, 28th May, 2020, and titled “Agriculture, Technology, and Social Security: Challenges and Opportunities”. The session was part of the series of ARDD-organised regional discussions about the state of social security in the Arab region.
The session guest speakers were: Dr Odeh Al-Jayyousi, head of the Technology and Innovation Management Department at Arabian Gulf University-Bahrain, Rabee Zureikat, founder and head of the Zikra Initiative for participatory social work and founder of the Music Identity Project, and Doha Abdelkhaleq, member of the Jordanian Senate and co-founder of ESKADENIA Software. The discussions focused on the importance of traditional resources and the opportunities in sectors such as local agriculture, and innovation as well as on exploring unconventional and modern resources to invest in, such as industrial and technological solutions that can help keep abreast of the developments in the service market, limit unemployment by equipping individuals with competencies, and meet the health, educational and social needs by using technology.
The Arab region, including Jordan, faces several challenges; among them, shortage of water resources and limited ability to provide power and food. The Arab world can only cover 50% of its population’s need for food. As such,Dr Al-Jayyousi said, it is not surprising to see the “emergence of creative people in times of crises, creating opportunities for innovation and rejuvenation”. Crucial to strengthening countries and the diving force of innovation, he added, is belief in a better future. In the case of agriculture, for example, it is important to increase the efficiency of irrigation, which saves enormous amounts of water, increase crop production — according to the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the Arab world’s production of crops is around 1,000 kg per hectare, which can be quadrupled — increase water efficiency in the field of protected agriculture and seed quality, reduce post-harvest losses, estimated at billions of dollars, and increase the efficiency of the value chain.
Speaking about the role of technology and the importance of bridging the technological gap, made even more obvious by the current crisis, as well as the poverty, health and education gaps, Senator Abdelkhaleq said: “The crisis created a great opportunity to rethink work operations through applying technology”
According to Abdelkhaleq, the corona pandemic created the opportunity to give serious thought to sectors such as exportation, manufacturing, intellectual property and patents, by activating the role of technology in networking with stakeholders and automating work. The use of online digital wallets for financial transactions and online trading lends support to the middle class and helps small businesses reach a degree of wellbeing. Although indicators show a decrease in prices of digital technology and internet subscription costs, it is important to provide digital infrastructure for everyone and equip people to use it in order to move forward, she said.
Talking about food security, Zureikat said “we must differentiate between food security and food sovereignty, as importing food affects sovereignty”. He stressed the importance of encouraging agriculture, integrating it in the educational and developmental efforts, and of the will to achieve food sovereignty. He added that our existence today is due to our ancestors who could create an independent system out of their local resources, ensuring sustainability.
According to FAO, 70% of food is generated by farmers who own small plots of land or small farmers who can create a clean-living system that protects health and environment. In the case of Jordan, said Zureikat, the change of the agricultural system and the focus on exportation forced people to alter their eating habits, and farm fragmentation caused by urbanisation and expansion of road infrastructure in well-known agricultural areas left societies poor. This led to favouring jobs rather than work in agriculture, as the economy is linked to government and military jobs, and an increase of unemployment due to neglecting agriculture in favour of permanent employment.
To overcome this problem, Zureikat suggested projects encouraging home gardening or residents farming neighbourhood lands, reminding that agriculture especially in our countries has always entailed collaboration, and enriched life and lore though, for example, farming and harvesting songs.
The speakers concluded that the COVID-19 crisis is different from others, in that it proved that farmers were the strongest amid it. They also warned against forgoing agriculture and failing to integrate it in the educational curriculum and called on schools to teach itas an essential and sustainable life activity.
They agreed on the need to invest in education and technology, decrease the costs of the latter, increase spending on scientific research and linking it to sustainable development, local and regional collaboration in regard to innovation, enhance agriculture and livestock, and utilize human resources, youth in particular, to achieve self-sufficiency and ecosystem diversity and biodiversity. They also highlighted the importance of collaboration among all civil and government sectors to reach an economy that ensures decent living and decreases social vulnerability.