Liberalisation measures have boosted food output across the region, a new study by the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says. Good weather remains the principal determinant of production in countries with primarily rain-fed agriculture. But reform measures and the introduction of high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of crops can have radical effects, the FAO concludes.

Regional agricultural production rose by 40 per cent between 1979-81 and 1992, the FAO says in its study, The State of Food & Agriculture 1993. ‘Growth in output has generally enabled food production to keep pace with population growth, except in cases of weather-induced shortfalls.’

In the same period, declining import prices kept the value of imports constant. Export volume nearly doubled and offset a fall in export prices. However, overall, the region’s agricultural trade balance remained in heavy deficit. In 1991, imports fell by 8 per cent to $21,300 million, while exports rose by 11 per cent to $7,800 million.

Egypt is one country where liberalisation has yielded dividends. The FAO observes: ‘In Egypt, changing price signals and a lifting of planting controls have resulted in a substantial shift in crop mix since 1986. Wheat area has increased and, combined with the widespread adoption of HYVs, contributed to Egypt’s sixth consecutive record crop of wheat in 1992.’

Syria is also benefiting from liberalisation, FAO says. ‘Recent changes in trade and exchange rate policies are making Syrian agricultural products more competitive in regional markets. Farmers who initially planned supplementary irrigation only for winter wheat are finding summer vegetables and irrigated fruit production increasingly profitable.’

Recent liberalisation trends include the privatisation of wheat imports in Morocco and Turkey, and of wheat flour in Egypt. FAO also notes big subsidy cuts in Algeria and Tunisia, but says other countries have excluded agriculture from their liberalisation efforts. It comments that Saudi Arabia’s fifth development plan (1990-94) stresses economic diversification and an increased private sector role in industry, but a continued government role in agriculture.