The Middle East Food Alarm

By , author of ''Covenant Over Middle Eastern Waters'' (Henry Holt), is senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

IN the Middle East, where agriculture is being sacrificed daily on the altar of economic progress, food insecurity could pit nation against nation.

Worldwide, 1 billion people lack sufficient food to meet energy and protein requirements for a productive, healthy life. Food production, which increased at an impressive rate in the developing world during the 1980s, has since failed to keep pace with population growth in two-thirds of all developing countries - and in more than 80 percent of African nations. The food shortage for Africa alone is projected to be 250 million tons by 2020, or 20 times the current food gap.

The Middle East, however, has the world's fastest-growing food deficit. By the end of the century, the region's food demand could cause one of the largest shortfalls in the developing world. Regional food demand is predicted to be twice the 1980 level by 2000. Sixty percent of the increased demand will derive from population growth and the rest from the growth in per capita income.

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Arab food imports jumped from $1.7 billion a year in 1972 to $12.7 billion in 1982. Egypt imported over 45 percent of its food needs by this time, Jordan more than 50 percent, Libya 60 percent, and Saudi Arabia 75 percent. By the early 1990s, imports were filling more than 90 percent of Gulf states' food requirements.

Egypt's wheat consumption is already among the highest in the world. With a population of 58 million people, growing by 1 million a year, it's understandable why Egypt's Ministry of Agriculture was renamed the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security in 1987.

The United States irresponsibly grew complacent about food supplies in the 1980s, cutting its investments in the agricultural potential of developing countries. The US National Extension Service, which helps transmit technology to farmers across the globe, is short on funds and vision. Researchers at the Stanford Food Institute contend that if existing ''shelf'' technologies were put into place, half the international food gap could be filled by 2000 with a relatively small investment.

The US should vigorously promote partnerships between Middle Eastern and American researchers in advanced agricultural research, one of the most effective tools for coping with the region's endemic water scarcity.

Israel is a world leader in the agro-technology field; its efforts should be substantially bolstered. Man and nature have joined forces in Israel's Negev/Arava region. With the Dead Sea to the north, the region's unique natural conditions, continual sunshine, and salubrious climate yield vegetables and fruits of unsurpassed quality that are in season throughout most of the year.

The Negev/Arava also benefits from large amounts of underground warm and brackish water, a hydrological bounty for both intensive agriculture and fish farming. The R&D Center for Pisciculture at Ein Yahav, located in the central Arav, has turned fish farming into a profitable commercial venture. At a model farm at Ein Yahav, water released from fish ponds is channeled into the irrigation system for cultivating fruits and vegetables.

It would be a tragedy if these achievements were lost in a misguided mission by Israeli and US economists to dismantle Israel's agricultural sector.

Agricultural advances in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and other Middle East countries should be encouraged and shared with other nations. Turkey's prospective role as food provider should be properly recognized and rewarded. A food self-sufficient country experiencing 7 percent annual growth, Turkey could become the breadbasket for large parts of the Middle East and Africa.

Unfortunately, the time lag between investment in agricultural research and economic impact can range from three to 15 years. Even if there were a technological fix, ''we would have to make an investment in it now,'' according to Pinstrup Andersen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute. ''We can't just sit back on our hands and wait for technological developments to present themselves.''

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