Feeding Jordan Well

It‘s becoming harder and harder to get enough of the right foods into Jordanian mouths.

By Elisa Oddone

Jordan has made substantial health gains over the past two decades, including increases in life expectancy and reductions in child mortality and malnutrition. But the looming squeeze of water and land, diet-related risk factors, and waves of refugees jeopardize that progress.

To better understand the challenges of keeping billions around the world fed with enough of the right foods, Oxfam has compiled a global index ranking 125 countries on the availability, affordability, and quality of food its citizens have access to.

Jordan came in fifty-first, scoring good results concerning undernourishment, with less than 2 percent of children under five underweight, granting an almost complete access to safe water to the country’s more than six million people at about 96 percent, and with one-in-two following a varied diet.

Figures show that food insecurity in Jordan is limited to a few geographic areas and affecting a small section of the population. “Jordan does not quite fit the profile of a food insecure country as the majority of Jordanians are considered food secure, with less than one percent of the population at risk,” FAO Representative to Jordan Andrea Berloffa told Venture.

But despite reassurances, growing water scarcity, together with climate change and land fragmentation have contributed to low agricultural production with repercussions on the country’s food availability. And the country’s high dependence on food imports makes it vulnerable to fluctuations in food prices.

Food Production

The Kingdom is one of the world’s 10 driest countries with the large majority of the population living on only 10 percent of the country’s surface area, and with less than 5 percent of arable land at their disposal.

Jordanians living in rural areas scattered across the country have been struggling over the years to grow enough crops due to the arid nature of the soil further exacerbated by regular drought, leading to slumps in production.

Figures from the Jordanian Department of Statistics show Jordan has had generally low wheat and barley production for more than 20 years combined with a disproportionate amount of imported grain.

Moreover, as the chart above shows, during the drought of 1999-2000, wheat production dropped from 70,000 tons to 9,000, an amount that fell disastrously short of the country’s demand for about 650,000 tons of wheat annually.

A large evacuation of rural areas over the last 50 years has lead to mass urbanization, in turn prompting a booming land market that has shrunk the amount of land available for agricultural use and hampered domestic food production. “Production of vegetable, fruit crops, and livestock will be constrained should the trend of decreasing land available for agriculture and grazing activities continue,” warned Berloffa.

But despite a slight increase over recent years in the production of vegetables, fruits, poultry meat, eggs, and some dairy products, Jordan still imports almost 90 percent of its food needs, according to the Jordan Food and Drug Administration (JFDA).

Food imports to Jordan include all basic products making up the country’s food basket; from maize, wheat, cake of soybeans to refined sugar, and barley, says the FAO. “The country is not self-sufficient in crop production and is thus compelled to keep strategic reserves of cereals, which helps bear the impacts of any sudden international price hikes,” Berloffa said.

Paying the Price

The government implemented a series of mechanisms to tackle rising food prices by fixing the price of bread, providing bakeries with subsidized flour and subsidies to local farmers to grow wheat and barley.

According to the 2010 Household Expenditure and Income Survey, while the majority of Jordan’s population shows adequate nutritional intake, food insecurity is still spread across the country. One-in-four of the households surveyed said they had resorted to borrowing money to buy food, and even reducing meals or skipping them entirely.

“A very hot climate in the south, cold in the mountains together with the different seasons and climate areas make vegetables and fruits available throughout the year, allowing Jordanians to follow a varied diet,” said Mohammad Tarawneh, the head of the Ministry of Health’s Non-Communicable Diseases Directorate. “A drawback is that sometimes financial access is limited. Tomatoes are available all the year but their price varies immensely.”

According to the World Food Program, poverty and food insecurity are concentrated in the Kingdom’s rural areas where one-person-in-five is classified as poor; owning small parcels of low production land and following a poor consumption diet that consists mainly of bread, few pulses, vegetables, and meat (eaten only once a week), and almost no fruits.

Fatty Fast Food

Increasingly sedentary lifestyles combined with high fat, energy dense diets are sending obesity levels soaring in Jordan. Obesity and overweightness affect 70 percent of women and 63 percent of men, Tarawneh said.

Data from the Department of Statistics show that there has been an overall decline in malnutrition rates among children under five, along with a fall in child mortality rates. Chronic, rather than acute, malnutrition is the main policy issue, as is the problem of being overweight. The rate of overweightness among children is nearly equivalent to the rate of stunted growth at around 8 percent.

“The Ministry of Health has been working on child obesity together with schools’ canteens deciding what food to allow and what to prohibit. Before it was not regulated, now it is,” Tarawneh said, adding that further projects involved cooperation with the Ministry of Youth to organize activities and make spaces available for sport activities in schools.

Tarawneh said Jordan is gradually adopting a Western-style diet, with more and more people choosing to eat fast food like burgers and pizzas, which are types of food that only became prevalent in Jordan two decades ago. “This transition… is affecting all age groups. This is one of the major problems in Jordan and we are working to influence people to go back to a healthier lifestyle,” he said.

Obesity and overweight are distributed equally between cities and rural areas where residents show low physical activity amidst a rise in fast food restaurants. “People across the country have shifted from a rural lifestyle to an urban way of living. We do not only have Western types of fast food, but also Eastern types offering falafel and shawarma that badly affect the population in the same way,” Tarawneh explained.

Ministry of Health figures

This lifestyle has led to serious health issues, including, but not limited to, diabetes. “People are still following a pretty much Mediterranean diet, nonetheless diabetes is increasing in the country especially among people above the 40-year-old bracket,” said Mohammad al-Khraisha, director of Food control at the JFDA. “Food is, of course, one of the major components, but an important role is played by the lifestyle people have; using cars and no exercise. Some of our traditional dishes are full of fat. We are still eating them but we are moving less and making less effort. People should change their style of life in order to prevent problems like diabetes.”

Refugee Pressure

The fallout from the three-year old Syrian conflict is also putting significant strain on Jordan. Around 600,000 Syrian refugees now live in the Kingdom, UN figures show, but unofficial figures suggest they could amount to over one million.

“Although it is difficult to provide estimates of the impact of the Syrian crisis on the life of Jordanians, it should be considered that since the crisis started in 2011, the country has registered a 10 percent increase in its population. This means the government together with international agencies must provide 600,000 more people with food and water, beside all other basic services,” Berloffa said.

Tarawneh stressed that the humanitarian crisis was affecting all prices; from resources to the sources of food which are subsidized by the government. “The price of fruits, vegetables, dairy, is increasing. Rents, transportation, everything is increasing. The humanitarian crisis is affecting everyone, rich and poor equally,” he said.

Trade routes between Jordan and Syria are now severely constricted. Agricultural production in Syria has plunged dramatically, some of which still enters Jordan but has been cut down to the bone, according to FAO.

Northern Jordan has been severely affected by the crisis due to its proximity to Syria where certain areas cannot be cultivated anymore for security reasons as they are too close to the border.

There is also fear the crisis could help spread plant and animal diseases across the Kingdom. “Animals have entered Jordan illegally and the government knows about it. It is difficult to pin down, but a year ago estimates showed that 300,000 animals crossed the border,” Berloffa said. “Today that number might have risen to 500,000. Uncontrolled livestock movement from Syria is the main cause of trans-border animal diseases causing a reduction in animal production and productivity.”

Jordan’s success in improving the availability, affordability, and quality of food for its population in the next years amidst the large refugee influx depends on a number of factors. It not only depends on tackling growing water scarcity, rising food prices, soaring obesity levels, and the decrease of land available for agriculture and grazing activities, but also on the need to develop new policies and an understanding of markets.

“Jordan is already exporting agricultural products to different countries in the region. But more effort should be made to understand markets and to grow a healthy agricultural sector with thoughtful and realistic policies, aiming at improving production, availability, and use of a product both for the domestic and external markets in the short, medium, and long-terms,” Berloffa said.