Jordan looks to expand markets for agriculture sector
Amman - Jordan plans to boost its moribund agricultural sector, which once contributed 3.5% of its gross domestic product, by meeting demand for out-of-season crops elsewhere, particularly in new regional markets.
The plan is meant to ward off the effect of losses in the sector estimated at $706 million since late 2014, primarily because of diminished trade with war-torn Iraq and Syria, Jordanian Agriculture Minister Akef al-Zoubi said. Those countries were once the largest importers of Jordanian produce and also acted as corridors for exports to Turkey, Lebanon, Russia and Europe.
Zoubi said the proposed 2016- 25 strategy entails identifying and reaching out to new markets for Jordan’s agricultural produce, propping up its exports while protecting farmers and sustaining their livelihoods.
He said there would be a special focus on “educating farmers to produce crops that are needed in neighbouring markets, especially in Gulf Arab states”.
“We will also pay attention to enhancing food security amid a growing population and an influx of a large number of Syrian refugees that hiked demand,” he noted. He said attracting investments in the sector is also in the cards but did not provide details.
Prior to the closure of the borders with Syria and Iraq when Islamic State (ISIS) militants captured territory in both countries, Jordan exported 220,000 tonnes of fruit and vegetables to Syria, 20,000 tonnes to Lebanon, about 50,000 tonnes to Turkey, 100,000 tonnes to European markets and 180,000 tonnes to Iraq.
“Exports to these markets were halted,” Zoubi said.
Although Gulf states “increased their imports of fruit and vegetables from Jordan, that did not cover the lost quantities that used to go to the other markets,” he said.
Zoubi said a serious hurdle facing exports to the new markets in the Gulf is the insufficient number of refrigerated trucks to transport Jordanian produce. “We can export more but the number of trucks is limited,” he said.
Poor transportation and storage conditions in available vehicles resulted in significant losses, sometimes up to 50%, of the exported produce, Zoubi noted.
The minister predicted that Jordan’s annual agricultural exports of 900,000 tonnes will drop in 2015 because of the continuing regional instability.
He revealed that contacts were under way with Iraq to reopen its side of the border, which was closed in April when ISIS advanced near the frontier. He said he expected the border to reopen before the end of the year.
In an effort to alleviate the decline in exports in the short term, new markets are being targeted, according to the minister who said exports of fruit and vegetables to Russia should start shortly after concluding details on shipping procedures.
“Russia is an important market, equivalent in size to the European market,” Zoubi said. He said it could lead to other Eastern European markets to follow suit.
In the long term, agricultural exports are expected to increase in view of an agreement Jordan signed recently with Egypt, Italy and Lebanon. The free trade deal sets the stage for dramatically cutting bureaucratic procedures that hamper the flow of trade among the four countries.
“With the agreement in place, the flow of agricultural products between us will be easier and faster,” Zoubi said. “The agreement will increase the kingdom’s agricultural exports.”
Shawkaet Obeidat, who owns an olive plantation in Irbid, was critical of a state ban on olive exports as of October 29th. The ministry did not give a clear reason for the ban but it followed criticism by Jordanian opponents of peace with Israel that Jordan was selling olives to Israel despite violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. About half of Jordan’s population is made up of Palestinians and their descendants.
“We have a surplus of olives… and Israel is our largest olive importer,” Obeidat said. “We want the government to extend the deadline for exporting olives so we can export more to Israel.”
Industry insiders said the increased availability of produce is likely to keep prices at all-time lows.
“I hope that the prices drop even lower,” said Umm Ali, shopping at an Amman store. “At least then I can better feed my nine children.”