Yasmine Seghirate el-Guerrab on food security: “We must ensure the health of the soil and the people”

Yasmine Seghirate el-Guerrab, a policy and communication manager at the International Center for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies (CIHEAM) in Paris (France), looks at the agriculture in the Mediterranean countries as a source of development. In a ByTheEast exclusive, Seghirate el-Guerrab talks about food security, development of the agricultural sector and inclusive development.

yasmine seghirate el-guerrab
Yasmine Seghirate el-Guerrab: "Food pressure in the region is very high, and states have a duty to deliver results and provide food for their people. There is therefore a dual need: to produce more and produce better." © All rights reserved
ByTheEast: International medias talk a lot about “food security” lately. What does it imply specially in the Mediterranean region?

Yasmine Seghirate el-Guerrab: Food security in the region is strongly linked to climate change, which has a direct impact on agricultural production, available water resources and soil quality. We are very committed to these central topics for the countries of the south bank of the Mediterranean sea. The Mediterranean is one of the hot spots of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thinks that there will be a rise in global temperatures of two to three degrees by 2050, which will have a significant impact on agriculture.

Agriculture remains the sector most rapidly impacted by climate change (droughts, floods…). At CIHEAM*, we develop prevention projects and more resilient systems (water saving, better soil treatment…).

One of the great challenges of the North Africa countries is desertification and soil salinisation. We have few arable lands, some of them are artificially so, with a lot of inputs. With the availability and massive use of synthetic inputs and machines have resulted in the cultivation of poor or unstable soils in not cultivable areas. From an agronomic point of view, one-third of the exploited land is not arable land. We must ensure the health of the soil and the people.

“We are racing against the clock since the population has grown exponentially in the region.”

BTE: What are the biggest challenges about food security in North Africa?

Seghirate el-Guerrab: We are racing against the clock since the population has grown exponentially in the region. Case in point: in Algeria where I come from, we were 20 million in the 1980s, we are 40 million today, and we will be 60 million in 2040.

Today, production systems are largely insufficient, Maghreb countries have a very strong dependence on imports. Authorities certainly do not want hunger riots on their hands. They have to manage emergencies.

Today we are in a real dilemma with regard to food security: the equation is very complicated especially if we have to factor in a sustainable approach and management, responsible production methods as well as growing global demand. Food pressure in the region is very high, and states have a duty to deliver results and provide food for their people. There is therefore a dual need: to produce more and produce better.

We are also developing irrigation programs for water management, with smart drips, we are working with agronomists to balance production methods to limit our impact on soils.

On all these subjects, the most important thing is to raise the awareness in the different levels of authorities. It seems that the issues of food security and the problems of sustainable management in the Mediterranean don’t seem a priority beyond the actors of agriculture. Agriculture often remains a secondary issue in political debates where it is limited to the issue of production. However, agriculture or fisheries represent security and stability issues for the entire region and their strategic dimension needs to be considered more.

Our ministerial meetings also allow us to develop our ideas beyond the Ministries of Agriculture who are generally already convinced. We must carry our message beyond the agricultural circles. This is for example what we do in our partnerships with the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), on rural women, on young people, on job creation in the food systems…

BTE: How food security can be threaten by bad nutritional habits?

Seghirate el-Guerrab: Indeed, food security includes nutritional security. On the south shore of the Mediterranean, the diet has changed a lot in recent years. It is much richer than that of our parents or grandparents. We observe very high rates of obesity (in Lebanon, 51.7% of men and 56.7% of women are overweight), the development of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes … All of these constitute public health issues, in the countries of North Africa, where prevention should be more important. We must return to what we call the Mediterranean diet which presents, from a nutritional and health point of view, a healthy, and nutritional virtues for health. This diet promotes local agriculture and the use of endogenous products. It will enable us to revive products that have disappeared from our food chain.

“If you want to act on poverty, you have to invest in agriculture first.”

A healthy nutritionally balanced diet is one of the most important things. It is important to think of the future of food for future generations. There is a kind of blindness. It is also up to farmers to show the strategic dimension of their sector. In France, while the media speaks volumes on the Rafales that are sold, they forget the millions of tons of wheat that the food industry will export, items which are strategic for France.

BTE: Is food safety linked to a nearby strategy?

Seghirate el-Guerrab: I am convinced that our projects are right to concern small farmers. We are defenders of the peasantry. We have to support the preservation of small farms, family farms and to work on root causes of rural exodus as well. It is also one of our messages in the context of food security: as many studies show, investments made in agriculture are investments having three to four times more effect in the fight against poverty. Today, if you want to act on poverty, you have to invest in agriculture first.

Farm families must be empowered so that they can produce and distribute locally, so that they can already ensure their own food security. We must develop an entire ecosystem around agriculture, challenging the great concepts inherited from the 70s-80s. It is necessary to re-evaluate trade in the agricultural sector; it is necessary that peasantry get better paid in terms of wages, especially womenfolk who more often than not are not even paid for their labor… The peasantry was dismantled and today everyone suffers from the situation.

“In Lebanon, CIHEAM supports cooperatives to produce olive oil for and to put it on the market. In the field, we work a lot with women.”

BTE: What about the North-South cooperation?

Seghirate el-Guerrab: CIHEAM has a particular approach of the cooperation. We believe that everything goes through the training, transfer of expertise and human capacity building of small farmers, with coaching sessions, advice to start a business. There is a need for field training, very much rooted in local needs.

We have more than 110 ongoing projects of this type. For example in Lebanon, we support cooperatives to produce olive oil for and to put it on the market. In the field, we work a lot with women. We are also developing a project called NEMO, to contribute to preserve the artisanal fishery and the communities living of fisheries.

BTE: How to re-activate the attractiveness of the countryside?

Seghirate el-Guerrab: It is imperative to improve the attractiveness of rural and agricultural areas, and bring services from the city to the countryside

History has repeatedly shown that tensions in rural and agricultural areas can have an impact on the country and beyond. In Tunisia, for example, it began in the countryside, revolts were born of the question of land and inequalities. Tensions, lead to rural exodus, slums grow and pressure on resources increases …It is up to the states to prioritize the fight against territorial inequalities. It is up to states to have a more long-term vision of this issues in the elaboration of public policies. And this is not limited to the Arab world or the Maghreb. It is true that we must invest public money in this policy in the long term, without immediate electoral benefit. It is strategic to invest in rural areas.

The significant population growth means food issues. Added to this is the mismanagement of natural resources, water and soil in the first place, and potential social revolts will probably occur. We must remember this urgency, by raising awareness.

BTE: Do you think governments are taking the stakes?

Seghirate el-Guerrab: On the ground, we are seeing good practices. For example, in Greece, after the terrible economic crisis that hit the country, we saw a significant return of young urban dwellers who settled in rural and agricultural areas. In the other direction, we see the development of urban agriculture, permaculture, it is nice to see the ideas of Pierre Rabhi spread. But it looks like a drop of water in the ocean. We must make a communication effort on all these topics, so that there is a real awareness of the strategic issues that agriculture represents. Unfortunately, I think we are underestimating the role of agriculture, the subjects are often very technical, we see only discussions between specialists. We should put more geopolitics, society and economics in it.

BTE: Do private operators invest enough in rural areas?

Seghirate el-Guerrab: We do not have enough partnerships with private operators. We would have to work on that. At first, the CIHEAM was very academic, very institutional. Gradually, we have opened ourselves to all the same non-governmental actors of the civil society, as associations, because they have a field expertise and some practical know-how.

Private sector is fundamental for the development and attractiveness of the countryside, and to prevent rural exodus. In the Maghreb for example, we have all the records: one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, the same for the unemployment of women and graduates. And in rural areas where you do not have access to basic services and where it’s hard to get around, you’re combining weaknesses. Today, there are two alternatives for fresh graduates hoping to enter a ministry or corporate headquarters to stay in the city but it is saturated because of the millions of young educated people who enter the labor market, or create their own job. But today schools form insufficiently for that. We need more young people trained in the spirit of entrepreneurship, taking risks, who see themselves as a solution to a problem.

Very often, we find that new graduates from the south try to stay in the northern countries where they were trained. Some return to their home country to take advantage of what they have learned. For those who wish to stay, it is important to work so that their expertise can also benefit development projects in the country of origin. There are some avenues to explore in terms of mobilizing the diaspora in the sharing of material and immaterial capital. Expert mobility can be an added value for both country of origin and host country.

“We are talking today about inclusive development because we talk more about affected audiences than territories.”

BTE: You often talk about “inclusive development”. How gender equality can evolve in the Arab countries?

Seghirate el-Guerrab: Inclusive development is what we previously called “balanced development” between territories. We are talking today about inclusive development because we talk more about affected audiences than territories. We had identified certain vulnerable groups such as women, children, sexual oriented people that suffered from discrimination and social norms in their country. We identify topics based on audiences to support, and women are at the heart of everything, especially in the Arab world.

Mediterranean societies are all patriarchal, it is not religiously linked. It’s a big mess: we have either women in rural areas with a high illiteracy rate or highly educated women in the cities but as soon as they get married they stay at home and have children. Women do not work, this is a potential that sleeps. These are untapped growth points.

We should start by setting up structures for early childhood, because in many countries nothing is planned from birth to 6-7 years. So women do stop working. Extracurricular is a real subject in the Arab world, it is also a financial issue for families because there are no public nurseries. I see Europe at the end of the WW2, there were real struggles for family planning for example.

BTE: Are food safety issues and economic migration to Europe linked?

Seghirate el-Guerrab: Migration issues are very important in the context of the challenges of agriculture, especially in the Mediterranean basin. But it is important to keep a figure in mind: one in four migrants goes abroad. This means that three-quarters of migrants stay in their country or neighboring countries. Mobility is primarily internal. The migration to Europe is spectacular because we talk about it on television, but it is marginal.

At the end, this migration plays a significant role in European agriculture. This is an unknown phenomenon, but today, European food security is now based on the “migrantization” of the agricultural workforce.

*International Center for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies


“The International Center of Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies (CIHEAM) is an intergovernmental organization; it has evolved significantly since its creation in 1962. Its founding fathers had developed the idea of an area of dialogue and agricultural cooperation for the Mediterranean countries, similar to what was being put in place in Europe with the Common Agricultural Policy (PAC),” says Yasmine Seghirate el-Guerrab, Policy and Communication manager at CIHEAM, headquartered in Paris.
“In the first two years, CIHEAM was housed in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) premises in Paris. At that time, our institution had a very Mediterranean approach, but from a European point of view. Gradually, in the 1970s-80s, CIHEAM opened up to southern Mediterranean countries. This opening was made since CIHEAM realized that cooperation between the two shores of the Mediterranean was much needed, given the stakes of food security which existed at the time. Today we bring together thirteen countries, including Lebanon, and have cooperation with non-member countries such as Syria, Jordan as well.”
“CIHEAM’s DNA was initially to be a space for dialogue and discussion on agriculture and cross-cutting issues such as sustainable management of resources. Our mission was to train the officials of the Ministries of Agriculture of these countries, in our four institutes (France, Greece, Spain, Italy). We are in a North-South-South triangular cooperation, to develop training. Today, our faculty is very diverse, there are many Moroccans, Algerians, Lebanese Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans students and researchers. We have many training networks and laboratories involving south countries. We have for example set up the first Mediterranean network on organic agriculture, the MOAN (Mediterranean Organic Agriculture Network).”
“We deliver masters, with different specialties, such as socio-economic masters in Montpellier (France) or phytosanitary in Bari (Italy). We do a lot of research, we publish constantly, our teachers are recognized in their field. For example, we are currently in the forefront of xylella fastidiosa, the famous killer bacterium of olive trees. The olive tree resists everything except this little bug. It started in Italy where hectares of olive trees have been contaminated and destroyed. This then reached Tunisia, and some cases were recorded in the south of France. This bacterium is spreading rapidly and we have still no solution. Our two institutes in Bari (Italy) and Chania (Crete) are working on this issue, testing drugs to prevent the spread of the disease. Two years ago, we also set up a network of xylella fastidiosa, all around the Mediterranean, in partnership with FAO and other organizations.”
“Apart from research and training, we have a third area of ​​activity: cooperation and political dialogue, with institutions like FAO, European Union, UN agencies… We set up projects, we seek funding, for support, for example, fishermen communities in Tunisia, programs to help women in rural areas. This cooperation leads to a political dialogue. Every two years, we hold ministerial meetings with the thirteen ministers of Agriculture of our member states and Intergovernmental organizations, to discuss issues that are relevant to them.”
“Our next ministerial meeting will take place in Tunis (spring), its theme will be How to strengthen the role of women and youth in rural and agricultural areas in the Mediterranean as a lever for development and growth. We are speaking of ‘inclusive development’ here.”