‘Small is beautiful’ – food security as if Jordanian farmers mattered

Ruba Saqr
Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency. (Photo: Jordan News)
Jordanians need look no further than their own backyard to draw up a roadmap for sustainable food security and agricultural self-sufficiency. By tracing our steps back to the Kingdom’s golden era of agriculture, we can take inspiration from a time when local farmers had the financial and moral support they needed to continue cultivating their lands, while keeping their rural communities intact in the face of urbanization.اضافة اعلان

Before the mass migration of rural populations resulted in the abandonment of arable lands (especially across the northern half of the Kingdom), Jordanian rural communities were inspired to persevere with the help of positive messaging from one man: the late Palestinian-Jordanian radio and television personality Mazin Al-Qubbaj, aka “El-Hajj Mazin”.

A household name from the late 1950s to the mid-90s, this charismatic man was the godfather of “agricultural communication” through his farming program “Al Ard Al Tayiba” (The Good Land), a successful radio show that became a television series on Jordan TV.

Qubbaj captured the imagination of Jordan’s then-bustling community of farmers by offering useful tips and insights into agricultural best practices, the latest in water conservation techniques, and interviews with local farmers who shared their knowledge on hybrid farming and cross breeding.

Born and educated in Tulkarm, in the West Bank, his communication style was distinctly romantic, down-to-earth, and captivating. He often waxed lyrical about the “beauty of the land”, the importance of preserving our connectedness to the “red, fertile soil”, and the need to find ways to protect the “natural vegetation cover”.

To celebrate his ability to reach the hearts and minds of Jordanian farmers, Qubbaj was awarded the “IPDC-UNESCO Prize for Rural Communication” in 1991. Established in 1985, the award aimed to draw attention to innovative content creators in developing countries who advanced agricultural messaging through various communication channels.

During Qubajj’s time, the Jordanian government was also known to offer farmers much-needed agricultural subsidies to weather the winds of urbanization and the unforeseen disruptions in demand, and to continue living off their land.

Later on, in the 1990s and 2000s, such positive policies were discouraged by the powers of globalization, like the World Water Forum and the World Bank, which preferred global supply-chains to local food chains – that were not celebrated enough for leaving a low carbon footprint.

In other words, globalization helped aggravate climate change because of the economic models it pushed countries like Jordan to adopt. Those policies converted what used to be a bustling agricultural sector powered by farmers who lived in rural communities into agricultural businesses owned by landlords who lived in urban centers and employed foreign workers to man their lands.

This also resulted in eroding generations of family-owned farms and intuitive farming techniques in the name of “economic reform”, along with the loss of large swathes of arable land in favor of closely stacked residential and commercial cement buildings.

Ironically, the pandemic, which has shaken the global supply-chain system to its core, has also ended up turning globalization-inspired economic attitudes on their head, opening the world’s eyes to the devastating effects of the lack of self-reliance for basic essentials like food and water.

Months of lockdown that resulted in global supply chain disruptions alerted developing countries to the fault in capitalist and globalization-centric agri-food policies. It became apparent that buying local and empowering farming communities was the smart strategic choice to make, especially if the aim was to guarantee the resilience of countries in the face of global shakeups.

To find our way back to an economic system that values farmers and local agri-food communities, we can always find inspiration in an iconic book of international repute, titled “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered”, by German-British economist E. F. Schumacher.

Published in 1973, this collection of articles paved the way for movements such as “Buy Locally” and “Fair Trade”, which support local economies that value personal connections with local farmers and favor community-based food systems.

Italy is one country that believes “small is beautiful” in the fields of farming and agricultural planning. One of the world’s top food-security success stories, the Italian agricultural model is built on a foundation of small and medium-size farms and food establishments that are mostly family-owned.

Italian family farms are supported by multiple networks of specialized agri-food “cooperatives” and “consortia” which help distribute, market, and export their produce locally and to external markets.

“Coop”, a nation-wide supermarket system powered by a vast network of cooperatives from all over Italy, is a remarkable case study into achieving food security through intelligent planning. With its impressive 160 years of experience, Italy’s largest supermarket chain offers reasonably priced, high-quality Italian agri-products to local consumers interested in clean, non-GMO foods and traditional “made-in-Italy” delicacies from the country’s 20 regions.

Most importantly, the Italian agricultural model is proof that farming is more than just cultivating the land and growing the crops. Farmers need complex support systems and logistics networks to sustain livestock farming and food production. This includes creating a solid infrastructure for agri-food cooperatives, food packaging industries, foodstuff manufacturing, traditional and machine-powered food preservation methods (like pickling and jam-making, which could solve Jordan’s problem of surplus produce), and distribution and marketing services.

This will lead to the creation of a well-developed agricultural matrix that could help alleviate unemployment by offering young Jordanians job opportunities that require manual and vocational skills, as well as academic credentials in agri-food marketing, advertising and PR.

To sow the seeds of food security and resilience in Jordan, we need to rethink our economic systems to prioritize sustainable community-based agriculture over industrial agri-business, small-scale farming over mass food production processes, and short food supply chains that are minimally impacted by climate change over globalized supply chains.

Jordanian farmers and agri-food producers are at the heart of the country’s food resilience and self-reliance vision. We need to talk to them as if they mattered – just like Qubbaj did – with a language that boosts their morale and inspires their perseverance and determination to give Jordan its second golden age of agriculture.

The Writer has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

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