Gathering in local coffee shops to chew qat is considered a traditional past-time for many in Yemen [GALLO/GETTY]

As global food prices continue to rise, Yemen is hoping a fundamental rethinking of its agricultural priorities will alleviate the pressure on its people.

The debate on qat cultivation and its role in supplanting food crops has recently resurfaced and fuelled resistance from a society that views the controversial narcotic as a traditional necessity.

Like most Yemeni householders suffering from soaring food prices, Hussein, a 38-year-old Yemeni taxi-driver, is cutting back on other expenses to ensure his family has their minimum requirements.

"The cost of a kilo of wheat has tripled in the last couple of months, I have nine children to feed, how can I send my daughters to school?" he told Al Jazeera. 

"Life is not easy these days, we need the government to respond," he added while negotiating over the price of a bag of qat in a crowded street in the Yemeni capital.

Health care and education are now lower on his priority list, but giving up qat, which costs on average $5 a day, is out of the question.

In a country where the World Bank says half the population lives on less than $2 a day, householders continue to spend 10 per cent of their income on qat, which the government now says is consuming Yemen's most fundamental resources.

Food crisis

The government is trying to restrict qat growth,
which consumes vast amounts of water [EPA]
Like most of the countries affected by the current global food shortages, Yemen's increasing dependence on external food supplies has also been exacerbated by climate change and population growth.

Mohammed El-Khouhene, the country director of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Yemen, told Al Jazeera: "Severe droughts have affected water resources considerably and reduced arable lands to only three per cent of the overall territory."

In addition to this agricultural shortage, the country has experienced a demographic boom, which further reduces its ability to feed the population.

"Yemen's population has increased by 600 per cent in the last 40 years, and is currently the sixth fastest growing population in the world," he added.

In the past few years, Yemen has dropped to 153rd among the 177 countries listed in the UN's human development index.

"The extremely poor population has faced an increase in food prices of 95 per cent over the last 16 months. According to the WFP rankings, Yemen is one of the countries that is most affected by the global food crisis," El-Khouhene said.

As a consequence, the country's already feeble capacity in terms of food crops has been drastically reduced. According to El-Khouhene "Yemen is currently importing between 75 and 90 per cent of its food requirements, leaving the population at the total mercy of the volatile international food market."

The country's difficulties in meeting the food requirements of its population have also worsened because of massive waves of immigration from neighbouring African countries.

Desperately seeking to escape poverty and political instability in Somalia and Ethiopia, a growing number of Eastern Africans are roaming across the Red Sea to reach the "Arabia Felix", often seen as a gateway to a brighter future in the oil-rich countries.

"Yemen currently hosts over 125,000 refugees, including 100,000 Somalis and 25,000 Ethiopians," Abdul Malik Abbod, a UNHCR representative in Sana'a, told Al Jazeera.

Qat versus food

Key facts about qat:

According to the World Bank: Qat is a flowering plant with stimulant properties that is native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

It was originally used in religious ceremonies, and early medicinal practise.

Qat contains cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant, which causes excitement and euphoria.

In 1980, the World Health Organisation classified qat as a drug that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence.

In Yemen, 72 per cent of men and 32 per cent of women chew qat for two to six hours a day.

According to medical research, qat chewing provokes a high number of mouth cancers in Yemen, because of the systematic use of pesticides on the plant.

Conversely, however, qat production and consumption contribute to 6 per cent of the GDP growth and to 14 per cent of the total employment.

Forty years ago, Yemen was rich in natural resources. The country was practically self-sufficient in cereal and other crop supplies.

Discouraged by a looming poverty, Yemeni farmers have progressively traded their vulnerable food crops for a much more profitable commodity.

"I used to grow wheat in my field but the benefits were uncertain. Thanks to qat, I can feed my family and reinvest in the business," said Oussama, a successful farmer from the fertile region of Dhamar, 50km south of Sana'a.

He says qat offers a much more secure option than grains, which tend to be at risk from capricious weather.

"I can sell my qat at any time, it can be harvested during most months of the year and it guarantees a high profit, which was not the case with food crops," he added.

Motivated by the same arguments, numerous farmers have followed Oussama's example, which on a large scale is spoiling the foundations of the Yemeni economy.

Mansour Al-Hawshabi, the Yemeni minister of agriculture and irrigation, says that the most productive arable lands in the country have been reserved for qat production.

"Land used for growing qat has expanded over the recent years by a thousand hectares per year ... consuming more water than any other crops in Yemen," he told Al Jazeera.

Qat growth has also significantly drawn on the country's water supplies.

"Qat consumes more than 20 per cent of the total water use in Yemen and draws out water equivalent to at least five times the rate of natural recharge of the Sana'a basin," said Abdelmalek El-Arishi, the deputy minister of agriculture and irrigation.

Seeking solutions

A Yemeni plucks qat leaves on a plantation in a
suburb of the capital Sana'a [EPA]
 

Despite attempts to raise financial support and trade cooperation with Arab neighbours, the Yemeni government has failed to contain the current food shortage crisis.

"To cope with the general malaise, international funds are actively working to find ways to contain the affects of the crisis on the most vulnerable segments of the population. Our $48 million programme is feeding about one million people per day, in the most exposed rural areas of the country," El-Khouhene said.

Meanwhile, Yemeni authorities are aware that the most efficient way to save the country from starvation is to promote the renaissance of its own agricultural industry by restoring a healthy balance between qat and food crop cultivation.

The recently launched national food security policy is leaning in that direction. Government officials have put in place a series of strategies aiming to enable Yemen to meet the growing demands for food crops.

"We are going to integrate [a] whole new irrigation model in Yemen," El-Arishi told Al Jazeera.

To achieve this goal, the authorities are promoting the cultivation of coffee and grapes, which are Yemen's most valued food assets. In parallel, they are trying to discourage farmers from growing qat by imposing a tax on qat production, forbidding qat cultivation in Yemen's most fertile areas and launching anti-qat advertising campaigns throughout country.

"Further efforts must be carried out in order to achieve our main goal of increasing the productivity of different food crop in Yemen," al-Hawshabi said.

Source: Al Jazeera