Agricultural Dialogue on the Outskirts of Tunisia’s National Dialogue

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Nawaat, Tunisia

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Photo: Sami Ben Gharbia, nawaat.org (cc)

The Future of Food in Tunisia
Food sovereignty is to agriculture what democracy is to society. In Tunisia, food sovereignty in discourse within the agricultural sector is what democracy is in discourse within the country’s National Dialogue. That agriculture and food sovereignty do not hold a prominent place within the National Dialogue is a grave myopia reminiscent of public passivity and ignorance in the US regarding the corporatization of agriculture, the attempt to reduce the country’s food systems to an industry, to appropriate food production within the one-dimensional context of business…whereas farming, food, and agriculture are so much more than tools for economic profitability.

"Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation…Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just income to all peoples and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition." - Declaration of Nyéléni, 2010

Agriculture and Society 
The agricultural revolution thousands of years ago enabled cultural revolution and the development and evolution of the societies that exist today. That agriculture is not a feature of national public discourse represents a widespread disconnect (unfortunately not unique to Tunisia) about the fundamental role of agriculture in society past and present. The very phenomenon that enabled the unfolding and diversification of civilizations as we know them today is widely unrecognized, underestimated, and overlooked in political, economical, and societal arenas.

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‘A Sector in Distress’
Between civil society and government, few seem eager to carve out a space for agriculture in Tunisia’s National Dialogue. If many are aware of the importance of food security and food sovereignty (especially with intermittent shortages of generally abudant milk which has been sold as contraband through «alternative distribution circuits» since 2011) few have voiced opinions or concerns when agriculturally pertinent current events or investigations appear in the media. Whereas a national dialogue theoretically allows a space for all issues and actors in the interest of a successful democratic transition, the fundamental and paramount role of agriculture and those who constitute its workforce have not occupied a significant place within public or political consciouness since long before the revolution.

"…the state of agriculture today is nothing but the result of poor state management that stems from the time of the country’s independence. Indeed, state dominance in agriculture and its various institutions has only exacerbated the impoverishment of a key economic and social sector whose future seems bleak." - Yassine Bellamine, Agriculture in Tunisia, a Sector in Distress

A Nawaat article published in March, Agriculture in Tunisia, a Sector in Distress, characterizes fading agricultural richness as a direct consequence of government neglect. Drawing from interviews with farmers in Fahs and Bouaarda, the article cites several factors — economic insecurity associated with unpredictable seasons and harvests, the taxing nature of physical labor, a lack of governmental provisions and incentives—whose collective effect do not inspire new generations to pursue careers in agriculture.

Food Security and Economic Stability
An earlier study into Problems in the Agricultural Sector and the Stakes of Food Sovereigntyexplores the demographic and economic trends associated with agriculture in Tunisia, highlighting in particular: the high rate of illiteracy amongst farmers and consequential difficulty in learning new technologies that make agriculture more efficient; the industry’s aging population (43% of the current population of farmers are over the age of 60); younger generations’ lack of interest in farming; the migration of inhabitants of rural and congruently underserved and underdeveloped (and most fertile) regions to cities for more accessible work opportunities of which the inevitable consequence is the diminished quantity and quality of workers and laborers; inflation and the rising costs of labor, farm equipment, fertilizer, and fuel (which represents 60 percent of production costs); growing debt burdens that have driven farmers to raise the prices of their products.

Tunisia produces more than its population of nearly eleven million can consume, and the most logical mechanism to accomodate surplus production is, of course, export. As the latter Nawaat author iterates, a common recommendation is to supplement the country’s crop production though the development of food manufacturing to enhance domestic food production, lessen dependence on food imports, and increase food security and economic stability. A lack of regulation since the revolution and the smuggling of contraband at the borders has significantly impacted the agricultural sector and food industry, and so new exportation policies must be adopted and enforced to ensure accountable and transparent trade practices.

"…it is imperative that the industry encourage exportation via legal and conventional circuits especially to Libya, a neighboring country that absorbs, clandestinely, a sizable quantity of Tunisian milk." - Y.B., Tunisia: Growing Threats in the Milk Industry

No Use Crying Over Spilled Milk
Or could it be that cries over wasted milk might draw much needed attention to the agricultural sector? A slew of news articles have reported on the grievances of a dairy industry that is poorly regulated and ill-fitted to the country’s milk production. Inconsistency in the collection and distrubution of milk in concert with the seasonal peaks and plummets of production has literally led to spilled milk (earlier this year in Sfax farmers dumped milk into the streets in protest of quotas imposed on the amount of milk that could be sold to factories; the demonstration, captured on video, did illicit (livid) public response) and the demand for the implementation of initiatives that raises the system’s capacity for the amount of milk produced. A similar situation, unfortunately, threatens to materialize once again as the season for peak milk production nears and the implementation of reforms is yet unrealized.

"This year, in anticipation of the beginning of operations at the primary dairy plant [Délice] in Sidi Bouzid, producers are apt to toss their overproduction of milk." - Y.B., Tunisia: Growing Threats in the Dairy Industry

A meeting held at the Interprofessional Association for Beef and Dairy (GIVLait) headquarters early this month addressed the pressing issues that portend an incident similar to the one that took place in Sfax several months ago. Meeting attendees included members of the Tunisian Union for Agriculture and Fishing (UTAP), the National Collective of Milk Collection Centers, and the National Collective Union for Dairy Producers. According to L’Economiste Maghrebin, a statement issued from the discussion holds that the policies in place to manage peak periods of milk production have not been implemented and that "priority had been given…to storage, without considering the exportation mechanism or the drying process." A strategy composed of several specific measures encourages dairy producers to cooperate in a collective effort to

  • utilize the maximum capacity of storage units available taking into account records of the previous three years,
  • develop a five-year plan for the exportation (fifteen million liters of milk per year) to allow for market prospection and the elaboration of formal contracts,
  • establish restrictions on the amount of milk wasted.

"It is to be noted that the dairy industry is doing well and could better respond to the country’s needs if all of the regulatory mechanisms are implemented with greater efficiency, reinforcing in particular the capacity of dairy plants and opting for drying as a means to absorb surplus and overproduction and to cover the need for powdered milk used in the production of dairy products." - Y.B., Tunisia: Growing Threats in the Milk Industry

Several days after the emergency meeting and the threat of a strike on milk collection that was to take place April 12 – 14, SYNAGRI (Tunisian Farmers’ Union) president Laith Ben Becher appeared on Mosaique FM in an interview explaining «Farmers Are the First to Suffer Losses» and subsequently issued a statement posted on the Union Facebook page condemning the impending strike. Bechir’s warning against the gravity that the three-day collection halt would have on producers was framed within an explanation of the underlying systemic issues and a proposed solution to address the structural insufficiencies of the milk industry.

Agricultural Dialogue on the Outskirts of National Dialogue
In February Ben Becher asserted the need to include and prioritize the agricultural sector within the National Dialogue, touching on points of food security, the liberalization of commercial trade, and the cost of production, and citing the main issues facing the country’s agricultural sector including structural inefficiencies, insufficient financial backing in terms of credits and insurance, and the aging trend of farmers. Leith advocated for a greater valorization of farmers in the political arena, the creation of "participatory agricultural politics" and provisions for sector-pertinent education, training, and research.

Will continuing threats of strikes, milk siphoned across borders and spilled onto streets, and official demands for reforms within the dairy industry inspire more interest in prioritizing the needs of a suffering agricultural sector? Until now, articles and current issues of agricultural significance have galvanized little public response in comparison to other highly mediatized and provocative (and agriculturally-relevant) issues such as immigration, smuggling of contraband, border tensions, unemployment, international economic cooperation and trade. While the agricultural debate has not been granted a space within the National Dialogue, farmers and producers and public figures who have vocalized the needs and proposed reforms for the sector have raised a notably coherent and uniform message about the inadequacies of the current structure and changes to improve the status of agriculture in Tunisia, which is so much more than an economically-quantifiable production of crops and commodities.