By the mid-1980s, agriculture's share of GNP in Jordan was only about 6 percent. In contrast, in Syria and Egypt agriculture constituted more than 20 percent of GNP in the 1980s. Several factors contributed to this downward trend. With the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Jordan lost prime farmland. Starting in the mid-1970s, Jordanian labor emigration also hastened the decline of agriculture. Many Jordanian peasants abandoned farming to take more lucrative jobs abroad, sometimes as soldiers in the armies of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states or in service industries in those countries. Others migrated to cities where labor shortages had led to higher wages for manual workers. Deserted farms were built over as urban areas expanded. As the Jordanian government drove up interest rates to attract remittance income, farm credit tightened, which made it difficult for farmers to buy seed and fertilizer.
In striking contrast to Egypt and Iraq, where redistribution of land irrigated by the Nile and Euphrates rivers was a pivotal political, social, and economic issue, land tenure was never an important concern in Jordan. More than 150,000 foreign laborers—mainly Egyptians—worked in Jordan in 1988, most on farms. Moreover, since the early 1960s, the government has continuously created irrigated farmland from what was previously arid desert, further reducing competition for arable land. Ownership of rain-fed land was not subject to special restrictions. Limited land reform occurred in the early 1960s when, as the government irrigated the Jordan River valley, it bought plots larger than twenty hectares (50 acres), subdivided them, and resold them to former tenants in three-hectare to five-hectare plots. Because the land had not been very valuable before the government irrigated it, this process was accomplished with little controversy. In general, the government has aimed to keep land in larger plots to encourage efficiency and mechanized farming. The government made permanently indivisible the irrigated land that it granted or sold so as to nullify traditional Islamic inheritance laws that tended to fragment land
Although the agricultural sector's share of GNP declined in comparison with other sectors of the economy, farming remained economically important and production grew in absolute terms. Between 1975 and 1985, total production of cereals and beans rose by almost 150 percent, and production of vegetables rose by more than 200 percent, almost all of the increase occurring between 1975 and 1980. Production of certain cash export crops, such as olives, tobacco, and fruit, more than quadrupled. Because farming had remained labor intensive, by one estimate about 20 percent to 30 percent of the male work force continued to depend on farming for its livelihood.
Even with increased production, the failure of agriculture to keep pace with the growth of the rest of the economy, however, resulted in an insufficient domestic food supply. Jordan thus needed to import such staples as cereals, grains, and meat. Wheat imports averaged about 350,000 tons (12.9 million bushels) per year, ten to twenty times the amount produced domestically. Red meat imports cost more than JD30 million per year, and onion and potato imports cost between JD3 million and JD4 million per year. Between 1982 and 1985, the total food import bill averaged about JD180 million per year, accounting for more than 15 percent of total imports during the period. At the same time, cash crop exports—for example, the export of 7,000 metric tons of food to Western Europe in 1988—generated about JD40 million per year, yielding a net food deficit of JD140 million. One emerging problem in the late 1980s was the erosion of Jordan's traditional agricultural export market. The wealthy oilexporting states of the Arabian Peninsula, concerned about their "food security," were starting to replace imports from Jordan with food produced domestically at costs far higher than world market prices, using expensive desalinated water.
Livestock production was limited in the late 1980s. Jordan had about 35,000 head of cattle but more than 1 million sheep and 500,000 goats, and the government planned to increase their numbers. In the late 1980s, annual production of red meat ranged between 10,000 and 15,000 metric tons, less than 33 percent of domestic consumption. A major impediment to increased livestock production was the high cost of imported feed. Jordan imported cereals at high cost for human consumption, but imported animal feed was a much lower priority. Likewise, the arid, rain-fed land that could have been used for grazing or for fodder production was set aside for wheat production. Jordan was self-sufficient, however, in poultry meat production (about 35,000 metric tons) and egg production (about 400,000 eggs), and exported these products to neighboring countries.