Agricultural output is central to the Tunisian economy, accounting for 12 to 16 percent of the GDP, depending on the size of the harvest. This sector provided jobs for 22 percent of the country's labor force in 1998.The 2 most important export crops are cereals and olive oil, with almost half of all the cultivated land sown with cereals and another third planted with more than 55 million olive trees. Tunisia is one of the world's biggest producers and exporters of olive oil, and it exports dates and citrus fruits that are grown mostly in the northern parts of the country. The center of the country is used largely to raise cattle, the Sahel region is famous for its olive groves, and the southern part of the country is known for its date production. Tunisia remains one of the few Arab countries which is self-sufficient in dairy products, vegetables, and fruit and almost self-sufficient in red meat. Since the 1980s, agricultural output has increased by about 40 percent, and exports of food have risen considerably. At the beginning of 2000 the government entered into talks with the European Union seeking a free-trade agreement for its agricultural goods. The remainder of Tunisia's agricultural production consists of several smaller export products including tomatoes, peppers, artichokes, melons, onions, potatoes, sugar beets, almonds, apricots, and wine.
Tunisia's labor-intensive agricultural sector uses very low levels of fertilizers and pesticides. Because farms are not highly mechanized, plowing a field may take 5 times longer than in the United States. Most of the land is split into very small farms making production much less efficient. Some 80 percent of farms are smaller than 20 hectares, and only 3 percent are larger than 50 hectares. Transportation and storage facilities are poor, leading to high levels of waste. Severe droughts, like the one experienced in 2000, have proven to be enormously costly.
Annual agricultural production can vary significantly from year to year due to Tunisia's unpredictable and largely irregular rainfall patterns. Almost all of Tunisia's water is used in irrigation, and the government is seeking more efficient methods that will conserve water. Its national plan aims to increase water resources from 2.1 to 3.5 cubic meters billion per year by building 21 large dams, 203 hillside dams, 547 reservoirs, and 1,580 deep wells by the end of 2001.
The fishing industry employs 25,000 people and catches an average of 93,000 tons of fish a year. However, coastal fishing has declined dramatically since 1995 due to pollution and the depletion of fish stocks. Fish is Tunisia's second most important food export after olive oil, and the government has made strong efforts to improve processing and storage facilities in order to match European standards. The government has also invested heavily in the upgrading of its ports and the improvement of its fleets.