From Danielle Nierenberg
Greetings from Mexico City!
This week, Food Tank is celebrating initiatives redefining food and agriculture around the world. While new challenges from population density, urbanization, conflict, and climate change transform food systems, we’re scanning the globe for stories of hope and perseverance.In the Middle East, the region once rich in agriculture now depends on international food systems. Home to the Fertile Crescent, the Middle East introduced domesticated agriculture nearly 12,000 years ago and fed not only itself, but nearby areas. But today, discrepancies between the demand for and the availability of locally produced food impact conflict-ridden countries like Yemen and Iraq, where over 27 percent of the population is undernourished, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. And with refugees from conflict-ridden countries fleeing to other countries and putting new strains on their resources, the Middle East has transformed into the world’s largest importer of food.
Organizations and initiatives across the Middle East are confronting food insecurity
and agricultural instability fueled by conflicts, climate change effects, urbanization, and natural resource scarcity. With environmentally and economically sustainable missions, these organizations are redefining how the Middle East grows, distributes, eats, and disposes of food.
Food Tank is highlighting 16 initiatives improving regional diets, food accessibility, biodiversity, farmer livelihoods, food waste management, and more: Ark of Taste, al Hima, Be’ah, Caesar Cider, CEWAS Middle East, Food Heritage Foundation, Food Not Bombs, La Vie Cafe and Mashjar Juthour, My Arabian Almanakh, Ramadan Sharing Fridges Campaign, Re:Food, SEKEM, The Arab Group for the Protection of Nature, The Iraqi Seed Project, The Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library, and The Urinal Project.
Contributing Author: Cara Weber
The Middle East—home to the Fertile Crescent—introduced domesticated agriculture 12,000 years ago. Today, news from the region features conflict, urbanization, food and nutrition insecurity, natural resource scarcity, and climate change—challenges that have made the region into the world’s largest importer of food.
But many organizations across the Middle East are working to confront these challenges and come up with solutions that are environmentally and economically sustainable—as well as socially just. Food Tank is highlighting 16 organizations redefining how the Middle East eats, grows, and disposes of its food. These projects not only redefine the future of food and agriculture, but are preserving regional diets, farming traditions, and ancestral knowledge that originated modern agriculture in the Middle East.
1. Ark of Taste, Israel
The Ark of Taste collects products worldwide that risk disappearing within the next few generations including fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, cheeses, bread, and more. In Israel, the Ark of Taste focuses on the traditional products that belong to Israeli communities—like matzo. While the flour to make the bread features grain never exposed to rain, some communities also request that the grains be handpicked in traditional ways. Due to costs and hardships getting this flour, bakeries are disappearing; but the Ark of Taste works to protect matzo in the face of these challenges.
2. al Hima, Jordan
al Hima aims for a food secure future by supporting Jordanian farmers in sourcing and planting local, organic seeds; advocating for fair-trade agriculture; facilitating farmer exchanges; and partnering with the National Center for Agricultural Research and Extension of Jordan. The organization raises awareness around the cultural and culinary value of heirloom foods by connecting restaurants to local producers. Through one of its projects working toward sustainable food initiatives, al Hima is one of the founders of the Slow Food Jordan movement.
3. Be’ah, Oman
Established by Royal Decree in 2009, Be’ah—or Oman’s Holding Company for Environment Services—oversees solid waste management across the country. Be’ah is now working with Ahmed al-Busaidi of the Sultan Qaboos University to study the feasibility of collecting post-consumer food waste to produce biogas. This program would redirect food waste away from landfills into a renewable resource.
4. Caesar Cider, Lebanon
The combination of closed agricultural trade routes through Syria and climate change effects crashed the apple market in Lebanon. Caesar Cider, a start-up company producing the first alcoholic cider in Lebanon, supports the country’s 85,000 small apple producers. Because apples are a long term investment—trees mature over the course of five years—farmers struggled without an export or local market. The cider company offers a new way for rural apple farmers and agricultural cooperatives to make a profit. Cider and juice making uses blemished apples reducing apple waste.
5. CEWAS Middle East, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine
CEWAS is a Swiss non-profit organization that works across the Middle East to improve innovative business practices in water and sanitation. Through training, awareness-raising, and facilitating innovative start-ups, CEWAS works to develop ecological business ideas. Their start-up program focuses on sustainability, resource management and reuse, and waste. Recent startups include Disco Soup, which collects discarded produce and turns it into free meals, and Compost Baladi which provides compost and recycling products and services for houses and businesses. CEWAS recently hosted the first environmental hackathon in Kurdistan in late July.
6. Food Heritage Foundation, Lebanon
Started through the Environment and Sustainable Development Unit of the American University of Beirut, The Food Heritage Foundation preserves Lebanon’s culinary traditions with projects featuring food tourism, community kitchens, farmers’ markets, traditional recipes, and livelihood initiatives for small, rural food producers—primarily women. The organization aims to protect the “collective memory and indigenous knowledge” of food and agriculture central to the Lebanese identity through rural-urban agricultural linkages.
7. Food Not Bombs, Israel
Food Not Bombs (FNB) is a global movement protesting the money spent on weapons in the face of global hunger and malnutrition. FNB combines free vegetarian meals with events, protests, and literature —advocating against hunger, homelessness, poverty, and the military-industrial sector—to reverse hunger trends. FNB frequently collects potentially wasted food from supermarkets and local distributors using food as a medium to inspire societal change.
8. La Vie Cafe and Mashjar Juthour, Palestine
La Vie Cafe created an edible urban garden in the middle of downtown Ramallah. The cafe’s garden provides fresh, organically grown foods while its interior exhibits local art and fair trade handicrafts—and the proceeds fund tree plantings. La Vie’s owners offer regular facebook videos in Arabic and English on organic agricultural topics, sharing knowledge with neighbors interested in replicating their urban garden. The owners also founded Mashjar Juthour, an arboretum and eco-park just outside of Ramallah that hosts short courses on organic agriculture and sustainable lifestyles.
9. My Arabian Almanakh, United Arab Emirates
An urban gardening journal, My Arabian Almanakh seeks to bring people closer to the natural world—even in urban environments like Dubai. Originally started as a Facebook page that disseminated recreational and food urban gardening tips, My Arabian Almanakh grew, even publishing a guidebook for beginner and experienced urban gardeners. Founder Laura Allais-Maré notes that Dubai offers an exceptional opportunity for the readers of the journal, with balconies that can host gardens all around the city.
10. Ramadan Sharing Fridges Campaign, United Arab Emirates
The Ramadan Sharing Fridges campaign operates annually during the month of Ramadan, offering those in need free food. In 2016 one family in Dubai offered free food in an outdoor refrigerator to community workers and laborers in their neighborhood during Ramadan. The initiative quickly spread, the 2019 initiative reporting 200 fridges across the city. The Ramadan Sharing Fridges posts the locations of fridges in multiple languages on posters around the city to help anyone facing hunger or food insecurity access the food during Ramadan.
11. Re:Food, Kuwait
Acknowledging the negative externalities of agricultural and post-consumer waste on the environment, Re:Food connects potentially wasted, but still safe, food with people in need. They collect food from local suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors before packing foods into nutritionally balanced grocery baskets for distribution to those facing hunger. Re:Food is a youth-founded initiative that won the Kuwait Youth Award for Excellence & Creativity of 2018 and founder, Maryam Aleisa, has been recognized as one of the 30 Arab Hope Makers of 2017.
12. SEKEM, Egypt
SEKEM produces organic and biodynamic products, marketing them locally and across the Arab region. With over 800 associated farms across the region, SEKEM works with partners including the Egyptian BioDynamic Association and the Centre for Organic Agriculture in Egypt. The revenue from its agro-businesses funds a number of other social and cultural development initiatives including educational facilities for children, vocational trainings, and a medical clinic. SEKEM was awarded the Right Livelihood “Alternative Nobel Prize” in 2003.
13. The Arab Group for the Protection Of Nature, Jordan
The Arab Group for the Protection of Nature (APN) works to protect the environment from hazards inflicted by climate change, population growth, and conflict. The group hosts tree plantings across Jordan promoting environmental awareness among school children and in Palestine. In addition to hosting tree plantings, APN also advocates for sustainable solutions to hunger and food insecurity. APN is the official coordinator of the Global Working Group on Protracted Crises of the Civil Society Mechanism of the Food and Agricultural Organizations’ Committee on World Food Security.
14. The Iraqi Seed Project, Iraq
The Iraqi Seed Project uses multiple mediums to share the realities of modern agriculture in the Fertile Crescent—the home of domesticated agriculture. What started as a collection of local recipes soon turned into documentation of the impacts of war, conflict, and related foreign aid on local agriculture and farmers. In response, domestic production and farming livelihoods have sharply declined during the past 30 years. The Project highlights the voices of small farmers and the agricultural heritage of the region through film and educational resources.
15. The Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library, Palestine
In 2014 Vivien Sansour founded the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library to collect and preserve ancient seeds and farming methods of her native Palestine. Under military occupation, traditional culinary and medicinal plants face extinction, uprooting, and their harvest can expose farmers to physical or legal punishment despite flourishing in Palestine’s challenging climatic conditions for thousands of years. In this living library, people celebrate seeds as tools of resistance to occupation and to globally homogenized food and diet.
16. The Urinal Project, Iraq/Middle East
The Urinal Project produces and distributes unisex urinals to refugees and displaced populations who otherwise have little access to adequate sanitation. The equipment recycles the urine and extracts its nutrients to be used as fertilizer in forestry and agriculture. This replaces the standard system that adds to environmental pollution and excessive water consumption.
(Danielle Nierenberg is President of Food Tank and an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues. She has written extensively on gender and population, the spread of factory farming in the developing world and innovations in sustainable agriculture.)