Since the end of French colonisation in 1956, successive Tunisian governments have managed to ensure access to healthy and sufficient food for the vast majority of its citizens. Tunisia has a low level of hunger, with a 2018 score of 7.9 out of 50 on the Global Hunger Index (GHI), and this number has continued to trend downwards. Most Tunisians eat their fill and some even allow themselves luxury food products from time to time. Physical access to something to eat without too much trouble is not the challenge. The question is, given the context of a stagnant economy and high unemployment: at what cost?
Food Security at a High Cost
Tunisia is not self-sufficient in terms of food production: more than 50 percent of the food the country consumes is imported. In 2008, agri-food products worth TND3 679.9 million (USD 4 400 million) were imported. In 2017, that figure was TND6 340.6 million (USD15 500 million). While the imports allow Tunisia to meet food demand, and although the state subsidises certain basic foodstuffs to ensure that the population has access, affordability increasingly becomes an issue. Because many agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilisers are imported, locally produced food is also subject to price pressure and fluctuation related to currency exchange rates and other uncertainties of international trade.
At the same time, the country’s historically rich bio-genetic heritage is gradually depleted through the importation of hybrid seeds and tree seedlings. Their use promotes the rapid disappearance of local seeds and varieties and puts farmers at the mercy of pesticide sellers. In the cereal sector, which is a state monopoly, Tunisia is 60 percent dependent on imports, but the Grains Board only buys from farmers who grow species that are registered in the official catalogues, which do not include local varieties.
Tunisian policymakers consider the agricultural sector not only as a producer of food but also as “a buffer against shocks destabilising the rest of the Tunisian economy”, in the words of the Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies (ITES), a thinktank under the supervision of the Presidency. This explains why Tunisian agricultural policies encourage crop intensification, irrigation, monocultures and agricultural investments to support the export of several crops that are very demanding of water, such as tomatoes, watermelons and citrus fruit.
The Triple Burden of Tunisia’s Agricultural Policy
Tunisia pays for this agricultural policy on three levels. Economically, the country suffers from the burden of high agricultural imports in a world market characterised by price fluctuations and governed by demand-and-supply factors that are determined by major producers. With its relatively low economic weight, Tunisia can neither negotiate nor influence these production factors. The country struggles to promote its export products for the same reasons. Production choices are also often restrained by donor countries and development funds that arrive with predetermined guidelines. Small-scale farmers are especially dismayed by the rising cost of production caused by price hikes for inputs like fertilisers, seeds and pesticides – and even more so when they see the selling price of their products. Farmers’ protests have been frequent in recent years throughout the country, demonstrating that the sector is in crisis. Despite popular support for their demands, the situation has not changed.
Meanwhile, social inequalities are widening as small-scale producers are marginalised and disappear. This category (under 5 hectares) represents 54 percent of farms, which occupy only 11 percent of the country’s total agricultural land, while large farms (more than 50 hectares), representing 3 percent of the total, occupy 34 percent of the farmland. The living conditions of people in these categories drift further apart every day. Small-scale farmers are crushed under the weight of rising costs and do not benefit sufficiently from state incentives, as they are considered to be unproductive. In addition, they do not fit into the production model of the decision-makers. Thus, more than half of Tunisia’s existing 516 000 farms are at risk. Farming is usually the only livelihood of these farmers. Their collapse will lead to a considerable increase in unemployment and to an exodus of young rural people into the cities where there is no work for them, and where migration is considered as an alternative. As the situation worsens, many farmers have already been forced to sell their land because they lack resources or young workers.
Affected women are particularly vulnerable as they cannot travel to seek work elsewhere due to the patriarchal nature of Tunisian rural society. They find themselves forced to work for large producers in deplorable conditions, without social security, with meagre salaries and staggering working hours. In the long term, all of this can all have a serious effect on Tunisia’s stability. This will further affect food security, as countries in crisis face greater threats of food insecurity than do more stable countries.
Projected Climate Change Effects
The current agricultural policy has serious implications for the environment and the sustainability of the country’s natural resources, but these are further aggravated by the impacts of climate change. In 2015, Tunisia submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) document under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which sets out the country’s objectives to reduce carbon intensity 41 percent by 2030, relative to 2010. It projects that extreme droughts caused by climate change will particularly affect the land area used for cereal crops and arboriculture, mainly in regions in the centre and the south, with an estimated decrease of 200 000 and 800 000 hectares, respectively, by 2030. It estimates a 30-percent reduction in the available land area for rain-fed cereal production and, as a result, that the agricultural GDP will fall by 5 to 10 percent by 2030, compared to 2010.
In terms of water resources, the INDC acknowledges that Tunisia already experiences water scarcity, which will be intensified by climate-related droughts and the salination of coastal aquifers due to rising sea levels. Water is already overexploited by an agricultural sector that accounts for 79 percent of all water use. Despite this, there are policies in place to intensify irrigation. Irrigated monocultures that stretch as far as the eye can see already cover large parts of the Tunisian rural landscape. Due to the lack of resources, maintenance and equipment, water wastage is enormous. Tunisia’s water is being exported to European countries in the form of olive oil, dates and citrus fruits.
What Is to Be Done?
The economic, social and environmental costs of policies that engage Tunisia in direct competition with agricultural producers in Europe and America can be counted in terms of a rising rate of debt to financial investment as well as in the loss of critical natural resources. The import and export of agricultural inputs and products also contribute to carbon intensity, making the situation even worse. Intensive farming practices are degrading soil quality, and natural biodiversity is declining in the face of monocultures. Fauna and flora are killed by pesticides, polluted waters and soils. The food produced is polluted with chemical residues and not healthy. Thus, the goal of food security is in jeopardy.
These problems and challenges are significant: ad-hoc solutions will not change the situation. Radical political decisions and policy changes are needed, and not only at the local level. To cope with climate change while ensuring food security, Tunisian agriculture must opt for a production system that will consider the peasantry as an essential and vital component of the sector: true craftspeople and engineers of the land who, through their ancestral knowledge, could bring us to our destination by safeguarding the rights of future generations without denigrating the environment. The transfer of know-how from one generation to the next is already compromised by the rural exodus. Therefore, rural development should be deeply re-thought and programmes envisioned to recognise and integrate the needs of young people in the agricultural sector.
Local crop varieties have adapted to local climate conditions and are less demanding of water and chemical inputs, allowing farmers to largely coexist with the environment. Unlike the hybrid seeds that Tunisia imports and imposes on farmers, local seeds allow farmers to manage and adapt according to the conditions of the season. Being rooted in this genetic heritage can achieve a significant reduction in chemical inputs and provide healthy food for the local population.
Tunisian decision-makers should pursue reforms that would limit exports and invest in sustainable and responsible agriculture offers. Such a policy framework could increase the country’s self-sufficiency and fortify its sovereignty, while at the same time feeding its people. It could promote laws and regulations to support the rights of small producers, preserve water resources, limit the use of chemical inputs, and promote the marketing of local seeds. Scientific research should be pushed in this direction to build a reliable basis for reform towards sustainable development.
However, Tunisia and other countries of the North African region remain highly dependent on Europe and the United States of America. This situation, which is governed by international policies and often very fragile, should be revised towards greater stability and predictability. Currently, the European Union and Tunisia are negotiating ALECA (Accord de libre-échange complet et approfondi), a comprehensive free trade agreement that will deepen Tunisia’s dependence by flooding the local market with low-cost food products – a battle that local farmers have already lost in advance. Saying “no” to ALECA is not to break with Europe and the West as partners in the Tunisian transition process, but it does mean breaking with dependence and irresponsible policies of plunder.
The principle of “food sovereignty” should guide policies to achieve sustainable food security for all. This principle was initially defined by Via Campesina, the international movement of peasant organisations, as a country’s right to determine its own agriculture and food policies. It ensures smallholder-farmers’ access to resources and land, secures their potential to produce food, and protects them from the influx of cheap imported food. In addition, they should have privileged access to seeds and water resources to be produced and used on a sustainable basis.
Solutions exist, but they require strong local political will and well-founded agrarian reforms that break with the policies of profit accumulation that have brought the country to where it is now. Tunisia needs reforms to break with the policies of marginalisation, overexploitation and extraction. The political will to change should be strengthened by the international community, rather than misguided by pressures from the ALECA negotiations, the international market, and multinational agri-food companies.
Food security must remain an absolute priority for Tunisia. Current policies compromise the country’s sovereignty and raise the fear of food insecurity in the country. The Tunisian government needs to defend the interests of the Tunisian farmers and to courageously break with the expansive, non-sustainable and exploitive practices that protect the interests of close-knit business circles. A commitment to food sovereignty needs to underly any decision-making in the agricultural sector.