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Wheat blessing: Jordan’s grassroot movement for food sovereignty

Amman, Jordan – Carrying sickles, a group of Jordanians gather to harvest a wheat field that spreads around Amman’s City Mall. Logos of international supermarkets and franchises tower above the golden wheat, as dozens of people reap a crop that for thousands of years has been cultivated in the region.

This collective harvest last summer in west Amman’s affluent neighbourhood of glitzy shopping malls was part of a grassroots initiative promoting food sovereignty by converting unused land into wheat fields.

Named Al-Barakeh Wheat – which can be translated as “blessing” – the project took off in late 2019, when founders Lama Khatieb and Rabee Zureikat’s social enterprise Zikra for Popular Learning started growing wheat.

“Our first harvest was in the spring of 2020, in the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic,” says Zureikat. Around that time, Jordan had one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. With a total ban on movement, food was distributed by government buses and trucks.

“People were standing in long queues waiting for bread to be distributed,” says Zureikat. “We harvested our wheat and started baking our own bread at home. We felt it was powerful being able to rely on ourselves, it was an amazing feeling.”

After successfully growing a tonne-and-a-half of wheat, Zureikat and Khatieb started locating empty plots of land in Amman and mobilising others to join their efforts to restore Jordan’s wheat fields and encourage Jordanians to grow their own food.

Since their first harvest in 2020, hundreds have joined the collective farming initiative, which teaches participants to cultivate wheat for an entire season and become self-sufficient in their wheat needs for a year.

Lama Khatieb and Rabee Zureikat inspect and sort wheat seedsRabee Zureikat and Lama Khatieb inspect and sort wheat seeds [Marta Vidal/Al Jazeera]

Disappearing wheat fields

Jordan is part of the Fertile Crescent, the region where wheat was domesticated. The world’s oldest loaf of bread – a flatbread baked 14,400 years ago – was found by archaeologists in the country’s northeast.

The hard-durum wheat grown in Jordan dates back to the beginning of agriculture. For millennia, the region was a major producer of rain-fed wheat, the population’s main source of food. But today, Jordan imports more than 97 percent of its cereals.

In the 1960s, wheat was still one of the main crops in Jordan, and production was large enough to export. With intense urbanisation encroaching on agricultural land, concrete blocks replaced wheat fields over the decades. Population growth expanded wheat consumption, but production levels dropped.

American wheat started flooding local markets in the 1970s. The adoption of policies that liberalised markets and removed subsidies for local production made it increasingly difficult for local farmers to compete with cheaper imported wheat.

“With free trade agreements and structural adjustment programmes enforced by international financial institutions, [Jordan] was not allowed to subsidise local farmers,” says Razan Zuayter, president of the Arab Network for Food Sovereignty, a group of civil society organisations promoting sustainable food systems and self-reliance in the Arab region.

With a background in landscape architecture and agricultural engineering, Zuayter and her partner Hasan al-Jaajaa wanted to cultivate wheat in Jordan in the ’80s. “But we knew it was a lost battle, competing with American wheat which was so much cheaper than growing local wheat,” says Zuayter.

To set low bread prices, the Jordanian government subsidised imported white flour. In the absence of policies to protect local wheat cultivation, many farmers turned to more profitable fruit and vegetable crops.

With floods of cheaper imported wheat and the urbanisation of fertile agricultural lands, the country with the world’s oldest bread started importing most of its wheat.

For Zuayter, Jordan’s import dependency is a political issue with dire consequences for the country’s stability and independence. “Food sovereignty shouldn’t be seen just from a perspective of profit,” she says. “The production of food should be seen as a national priority and a local security issue.”

The COVID-19 pandemic’s disruptions of supply chains have highlighted the problems of lacking food sovereignty. Since Jordan imports most of its key staples, it is particularly vulnerable to disruptions.

A recent report published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found 53 percent of Jordanians – or three million people – are vulnerable to food insecurity.

Lama Khatieb and Rabee Zureikat pose in a wheat fieldLama Khatieb and Rabee Zureikat pose for a photo in a wheat field [Courtesy: Al-Barakeh Wheat]

Bringing back local wheat

For the founders of Barakeh, growing wheat in neglected plots of land is a way of reclaiming independence and promoting sovereignty in a country that relies heavily on food imports and foreign aid.

Last September, in partnership with wheat farmers and a local bakery, the project also started selling bread made with 100 percent local wheat, which was almost impossible to find at markets before.

Since only imported white flour is subsidised, local whole-wheat bread is more expensive. But according to Zureikat, the demand has been high despite the increased cost, with at least 700 bags of local bread being sold each day.

“Even if it costs more, the initiative has a lot of value,” he says. “It’s reshaping people’s relation with their land and with their food, and it’s bringing people from different background together.”

The project is also about reclaiming ancient traditions and renewing interest in local farming. By inviting experienced wheat farmers to teach city dwellers to grow their own food, it is unsettling class relations, as farmers who have been undervalued and marginalised take on the role of teachers, and Amman’s wealthier residents become their students.

“By sowing our own wheat, the initiative is offering us the chance to reconnect with the land and the food we eat,” says Dima Masri, a researcher who joined this year’s wheat cultivation to learn from local wisdom and ancestral practices.

Jordanians harvest wheat they planted, enough to provide their bread needs for a year Jordanians harvest wheat they planted, enough to provide their bread needs for a year [Courtesy: Al-Barakeh Wheat]

‘Being part of nature’

Drawn by the project’s values of sovereignty and independence, Masri took part in the sowing of wheat last month. The highlight, she says, was a group recitation of an ancient farmers’ prayer that celebrates wheat cultivation as a way of feeding not only people but also birds and ants, and being at one with nature.

“The prayer is about being part of a community, being part of nature,” says Zureikat. “When we grow our food we think of our neighbours, but also of animals around us. We are part of a whole, we don’t do it thinking about individual gain or profit.”

He says the project is inspired by the concept of barakeh, “blessing”, a value system based on sharing and cooperation that has been lost with the disappearance of wheat fields and the collective farming that used to be the backbone of Jordanian society.

“In one of the wheat planting sessions, a farmer told us that birds sometimes come to eat the wheat. So one of the participants, a city dweller, said he would make a scarecrow.

But the farmer said “no”. He said it is the bird’s right to have a portion of the seeds. “This is barakeh,” explains Zureikat, pouring extra seeds for birds.

“It’s about being part of a community, sharing resources instead of competing with others.”

Rabee Zureikat inspects wheat seeds Rabee Zureikat inspects wheat seeds [Marta Vidal/Al Jazeera]
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