Mangoes in MENA: Climate change sours ripening taste buds
Mangoes conjure images of Floridian beaches or Indian monsoons. The scenic but bleak deserts of the Middle East, on the other hand, hardly inspire visitors to picture flourishing orchards.
Nonetheless, some of the region’s largest countries are making a little-noticed but promising foray into the cultivation of mangoes.
Meanwhile, the Middle East’s up-and-coming farmers of the fruit must contend with a challenge all too familiar to the industry’s heavyweights: climate change, a spectre looming over the future of the beloved food staple.
"As Egypt, Iran, and Turkey contend with economic troubles, exports and domestic sales of mangoes offer a lifeline. Yet extreme weather, a frequent symptom of climate change, threatens to roil an industry on which many Middle Easterners depend"
Egypt, the most populous country in the Middle East, offers the best example of the region’s love of mangoes. The city of Ismailia, seated on the western edge of the Suez Canal, serves as the heart of Egypt’s mango-growing culture and began hosting a mango-themed festival last year.
Ismailia Mango Festival 2023, held in August, attracted a wide range of what the event billed as “VIPs,” “including the City Governor and Ambassadors from around the world.”
Mangoes’ cultural cachet in Egypt stems from their economic importance. Al-Ahram, citing statistics from the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, reported that the country grew over 1.2 million tons of mangoes in 2020.
The newspaper credited Muhammad Ali Pasha, Egypt’s founding father, with importing the country’s first mango tree from India in 1832. Egyptians now grow over 200 types of mangoes, including one—hendi—that takes its name from India. Today, the country’s mango-harvesting season runs from August to October.
In the two centuries since Egypt began producing mangoes, some of its neighbours have picked up the practice as well. Declaring Israel “an emerging mango superpower” in 2016, Haaretz concluded that the country had achieved “the world’s highest yield per acre” of mangoes. Israel started cultivating the fruit in the 1970s, later patenting nine varieties, among them at least one grown in Egypt. The country now has 5,000 acres of farmland dedicated to mangoes alone.
Even Egypt and Israel’s geopolitical rivals have a common interest in mangoes. In 2022, the Financial Tribune reported that farmers in the southeast of Iran cultivated 40,000 tons of fruit a year.
An official in the Turkish city of Antalya, on the Mediterranean Sea, told Hürriyet last year that farmers in the surrounding area had been growing an even greater annual total—65,000 tons—after beginning cultivation in 2014. The Turkish official added that, though most of the fruits stay within Turkey, the country also exports a number to Iran.
As Egypt, Iran, and Turkey contend with economic troubles, exports and domestic sales of mangoes offer a lifeline. Yet extreme weather, a frequent symptom of climate change, threatens to roil an industry on which many Middle Easterners depend.
The National reported in July that a heat wave had devastated Egyptian farmers’ mangoes, which an Egyptian official described as “undoubtedly caused by climate change.” A similar incident occurred in 2021 when fluctuating temperatures led to a yield far lower than the previous year’s.
As countries across the world pioneer new techniques for climate change mitigation, they already have plenty of options for mitigating global warming’s impact on mangoes.
As far back as 2015, a research paper highlighted “ways to adapt mango cultivation to climate change in the coming decades, such as cultivar and rootstock selection, and improvement of cultural practices.” Instead, the most damaging losses of mangoes come from lack of preparation.
A 2021 report by Mada Masr placed much of the blame on Egyptian officials for that year’s drop in the production of mangoes, in which 300,000 farmers grew 80 percent less than the previous year.
"As countries across the world pioneer new techniques for climate change mitigation, they already have plenty of options for mitigating global warming’s impact on mangoes"
The report faulted the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation for its failure to offer guidance to farmers on climate change mitigation, despite other episodes of climate change hurting yields: another weather-induced dip had taken place just three years earlier.
In theory, farmers already have channels for governmental and international support. The sponsors of the Ismaila Mango Festival, for example, include not only Egyptian government agencies but also the United States Agency for International Development.
The Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has likewise provided financial assistance to producers of mangoes, with Turkish growers calling for the same. Even the United Nations has supported Kenya’s cultivators of mangoes as they battle climate change, a possible model for similar programs in Egypt, Israel, and Turkey and throughout the Middle East.
Success, though, will likely demand greater coordination between farmers, governments, and aid agencies.
As enthusiasm for mangoes spreads farther afield, opportunities to collaborate on protecting the fruit’s future may grow.
In 2016, Pakistan’s ambassador to Morocco sponsored a mango-themed festival that visited Agadir, Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Rabat, announcing, “For the first time ever, the Pakistani mango has been brought to the Moroccan people.” In Morocco’s neighbour Algeria, a farmer earned his own headlines and the attention of the National Chamber of Agriculture for attempting to cultivate mangoes in the country’s parched south.
Preserving the Middle East’s mangoes will require this kind of innovation as well as cooperation. And while mangoes’ future remains in question amid extreme weather and the acceleration of climate change, there can be no doubt about the region’s commitment to the fruit.