Moroccan farms to Moroccan stew
The Moroccan agricultural sector is dichotomous: there is the industrialized, commercial side, which tends to produce fruits and vegetables for export; and there is also the small-scale, semi-subsistence side in which farmers produce lower-value cereal crops, like wheat and barley, for domestic consumption. While the former brings in billions of dollars of annual revenue through trade, it is the latter that represents the majority of farmers in the country, most of whom operate on rain-fed plots of less than 5 hectares.
Agriculture is a vital component of the Moroccan economy. Around 40 percent of the country’s population is employed in the sector, a figure which doubles to 80 percent in rural areas. It accounts for about 15 percent of Morocco’s GDP and between 20 and 30 percent of the Kingdom’s exports in any given year (the vast majority of which are destined for Europe).
For many decades, Morocco’s agricultural strategy focused on promoting self-sufficiency in key crops, including cereals, and on the exportation of select crops.Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, that support meant significant market interventions and price support mechanisms for the country’s farmers; but by the 1980s, the Moroccan economy—including its agricultural sector—became increasingly liberalized and market-oriented. As a result, interventions were reduced in frequency and scope, although subsidies do remain in place for some agricultural inputs like certified seeds.
By the 2000s, however, the Moroccan government knew that its agricultural sector needed a more profound shakeup. Rural poverty remained rampant and agriculture was generally vulnerable. In 2007, McKinsey was brought in to identify strengths and weaknesses, as well as to help develop a new strategy for the sector. In 2008, the Plan Maroc Vert was launched with an intended timeframe between 2008 and 2020.
The ABCs of the PMV
In developing a new agricultural development strategy, the Moroccan government targeted several existing concerns. But primarily, the aim was to develop agriculture into a driver of economic growth in the country, and, in so doing, to alleviate the problems associated with low rural incomes and poverty. To achieve this, the strategy needed to address several obstacles that plagued the sector including low investment, low cereal yields, weather volatility, and climate change.
The PMV’s objectives are broad: according to the African Development Bank, its primary objectives are to “strengthen the sector’s competitiveness, while promoting inclusive economic growth.” The PMV is split into two pillars, each representing one of the two sides of Moroccan agriculture. Pillar 1 concerns industrialized, commercial agriculture, and aims to maximize production from these farms by promoting agribusiness investment. Pillar 2 tackles small-scale farming, and aims to support agriculture projects in marginal areas, support farmer incomes, and safeguard natural resources. Within these two pillars, the PMV lays out several ambitious goals, including to: i) introduce projects targeting 1.4 million farmers, ii) increase agricultural value-addition by 250 percent, iii) create 1.5 million jobs, iv) more than triple agricultural exports, v) implement 1,500 agricultural projects, and vi) support MDH 147 billion (USD 15 billion) in investments in the sector.
Since the introduction of the program in 2008, several organizational steps have been taken to facilitate its implementation: the Department of Agriculture has been reorganized, and 16 Regional Directorates of Agriculture have been established. Additionally, the country has established the Agency for Agricultural Development, responsible for promoting agricultural investment; the National Food Safety Authority, tasked with implementing and overseeing quality control; and the National Agency for the Development of Oasis and Arganier Areas, charged with promoting the development of oasis and arganier ecosystems. And to fund all these efforts, Morocco has acquired significant agricultural investments in the form of grants and loans from organizations including the World Bank (loans totaling $408 million), the African Development Bank (loans totaling at least $250 million), the EU, the French Development Agency, Hassan II Fund, USAID, and the FAO, among other international organizations.
While the PMV’s objectives are vast, three of its target areas in particular—the reduction of domestic hunger (while boosting rural incomes); the expansion of agricultural trade; and the strengthening of sector resiliency—provide a particularly valuable lens through which the program can be evaluated.
While many Moroccans—especially those in rural areas—depend on agriculture as their primary source of income, these earnings are stunted or made unpredictable by the fact that most farmers grow volatile, low-yield and low-value crops, particularly cereals. While cereals take up the majority of agricultural lands (75 percent), they constitute a relatively small share of sales (10-15 percent) and virtually no exports.
The dependence on low-value, weather-vulnerable crops plays a part in the persistence of rural poverty in Morocco, where about 4 million of the country’s 33 million inhabitants live below the poverty line. Although nutrition has been steadily improving in the country, between 2.5 and 5 percent of Morocco’s population is estimated to be undernourished.
So how does the PMV seek to address these issues? The strategy is to increase farmer incomes and available jobs by focusing on high-value crops and improving yields, while simultaneously improving food sovereignty in cereals, milk, and meat. The project also proposes a reduction in the area dedicated to cereal cultivation, but to simultaneously increase yields so that net cereal production would rise. Arable land no longer being used for cereal cultivation can then be converted into farms growing higher-value products, such as olives, fruits, vegetables, milk, or become pastureland for livestock (the PMV also highlights the importance of boosting domestic red meat production).
This land conversion plan has been a partial success: the barley and corn areas have indeed declined since 2008, although wheat acreage has actually increased during this period. While the yields of these cereals have continued to be somewhat volatile, in 2013 Morocco achieved its highest wheat yield in the over 50 years of available FAO data (2.16 t/ha), suggesting some progress. The country has also had some success in increasing acreage of some of its high-value target crops, such as olives, in particular, as well as avocados, figs and dates.
Food production, in both capital and per capita terms, has increased since 2008, thereby helping to make food more widely available.
This success has assisted Morocco in achieving its hunger-reduction efforts, and even claim success in implementing MDG 1 before the 2015 deadline.
Feeding the EU
As noted above, trade is a vital component of the Moroccan agricultural sector. The EU is Morocco’s largest trading partner, and agricultural exports constitute a significant portion of that tradethanks to Morocco’s comparative advantage in the production of several fruits and vegetables. The PMV set a target to more than triple the quantity of Morocco’s agricultural exports by 2020. In 2014, over $3.2 billion in agricultural products were exported from Morocco to the EU, representing a significant increase from 2008 (although still a long way from the goal of tripling these exports).
To reach this ambitious goal, Morocco has prioritized eliminating barriers to trade, signing a free trade agreement with the EU in 2012 which facilitates Morocco’s ability to export its agricultural products, and Europe’s ability to export its processed goods to the Kingdom. This agreement gives duty-free access to 70 percent of European imports, and lifts duties on 55 percent of Morocco exports.
At the same time, Morocco is increasing its trade competitiveness by implementing a food safety framework consistent with international standards and has established the National Food Safety Authority to implement these standards. Meanwhile, the PMV has tackled efficiency in traded products by seeking to increase production and yields of Morocco’s “stronghold products,” to “gain market share in all European markets” and to develop new markets, including in the US.
Amid these efforts, agricultural trade between the EU and Morocco has been on an upward trend, with both import and export values for 2014 reaching their highest levels in at least the last decade.
Feeding the Future
In addition to addressing historical and contemporary agricultural challenges, the PMV is also directly addressing the country’s future. And in so doing, the PMV has to grapple with the potential constraints posed by a changing climate. Morocco already suffers from water scarcity and precipitation variability, and according to the FAO, is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with climate models predicting rising average temperatures, decreasing rainfall, and greater variability in both climate and water resources in the future.
According to a World Bank report, Morocco would be among the four countries most negatively affected by climate change in terms of agricultural yields. The authors of that study estimated the effects of 5 general circulation climate models under 3 different emissions scenarios. Their average for these scenarios, which did not include the potential impact of CO2 fertilization (the process through which an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide encourages plant growth), indicated that Morocco’s 2050 yields for 11 major crops, compared with 2000 figures, could see declines of 25 percent. While such a prediction is alarming, the exact impact of climate change on agriculture is still a matter of debate, and it is possible that other effects, including CO2 fertilization, may offset some of these adverse effects: the same study, when it accounted for the effects of CO2 fertilization, found the impacts of climate change on agriculture to be less negative, or even positive in some regions.
Morocco’s biggest environmental concern for its future, and in many cases in its present, is water availability. Agriculture is currently responsible for around 90 percent of its water withdrawals, and the country has just 866 cubic meters of annual renewable water resources, making it a “water scarce” country according to loosely defined UN guidelines. The country is also a frequent victim of volatile weather, suffering from drought at least four times in the last 15 years, in some instances so severe that cereal production was halved and hundreds of thousands of people were affected. Unfortunately for Morocco, studies have suggested that droughts in Morocco are occurring with more frequency, and may continue to become increasingly common thanks to climate change.
As of 2011, only 16 percent of Morocco’s agricultural area was irrigated, or around 1.5 million hectares. Less than one fifth of this was localized (such as drip) irrigation. This represents a major opportunity for the country, as efficient irrigation systems could help not only bolster yields but also help conserve scarce resources.
Picking up on these concerns, the PMV seeks to protect Moroccan agriculture from current and future volatility, and has set a target of conserving 1.4 billion cubic meters of water annually. One way the project is pursuing this is by investing in increasing irrigation coverage: the National Irrigation Water Saving Program aims to transform 500,000 hectares of land from spray or surface irrigation to more efficient, localized irrigation over a 10-year period. This represents a more than tripling in the area with localized irrigation.
In addition, the program is introducing conservation agriculture practices, such as direct seeding and no-tillage, both of which can be effective in areas with low rainfall. The PMV is also seeking to introduce improved crop varieties that are well-suited to the climate conditions and to increase the use of certified seeds. Finally, the PMV is aiming to reduce the demand for water by reducing the area of water-intensive crops, such as cereals, in favor of less water-intensive crops.
The PMV has already recorded some major successes in these areas. As of early 2015, the country had made significant progress towards its irrigation goals by enlisting more than twice its target number of farmers to convert to localized irrigation. In total, around 200,000 hectares of irrigation systems were converted to localized irrigation between 2008 and 2013, more than doubling the amount of land using such systems. In addition, the country has introduced direct seeding techniques on at least 500 hectares of cereal-growing land. Not only has the PMV assisted in making a more resilient agricultural sector, but evidence suggests that it is helping create a more environmentally friendly agricultural sector, too: a preliminary analysis by the FAO concluded that the implementation of the PMV, over a 20 year timeframe, was expected to be an improvement in terms of the release of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases, compared to making no change.
The Plan Maroc Vert is an ambitious and wide-reaching strategy designed to jumpstart Morocco’s ailing agriculture sector and better prepare it for future uncertainties.
The program sets out tremendous goals that impact every corner of the country’s agricultural sector, and the efforts to improve rural livelihoods, boost trade, and alleviate the constraints of finite natural resources in the face of climate change are particularly vital. The country has made significant strides in each of these areas, demonstrating the power of a strong agricultural vision. And while these final five years of the PMV will be the ultimate test for the policy, its success thus far gives plenty of reasons for countries facing similar challenges to formulate their very own versions of a comprehensive “Plan Vert.”