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An opinion article by FAO-Director General José Graziano da Silva
An article by FAO Director-General, José Graziano da Silva

Thousands of government leaders and international policy experts will gather soon for the World Government Summit on the shores of the Gulf, a particularly fitting venue as it was witness to the birth of agriculture, yet today is one of the regions most exposed to the risks posed by climate change.

The Gulf region is poised to experience a significant uptick in the frequency of consecutive dry days as well as show soil moisture anomalies, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If we fail to keep average global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius, the region often known as the cradle of human civilization will increasingly face extreme heat waves of the kind that disable the human body’s ability to cool itself.

Avoiding that fate is within our means, and will require governments muster the will to achieve a formidable array of tasks. We won’t be able to address the climate challenge we face without fully harnessing the needs and opportunities of agriculture and our food systems.

To feed the world’s growing population, we will need to increase food output by around 50% by 2050, and we have to do that without depleting strained natural resources beyond the tipping point. The good news is that, with smart innovation, we can help agriculture to adapt to climate change and make an ally in mitigating greenhouse gases, and do so in a way that contributes to the global pledge to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2030.

Agriculture in the largest sense is a privileged arena for action, as single investments can meet multiple targets, ranging from providing local employment and improving nutritional health to softening the competition for increasingly scarce natural resources – such as water, which is in such short supply across most of the Middle East.

In particular, efforts to combat climate change can positively help bolster the livelihoods and food security of the world’s poor, 80 percent of whom live in rural areas often disproportionately exposed to adverse effects of climate change they did not cause. Supporting smallholders is not only the right thing to do but, as addressing poverty, hunger and climate change requires an integrated approach, is a keystone for assuring any lasting success.

While governments should create an enabling environment for such smart investments, coping with climate change will require a bottom-up effort to build stability, one that combines development, environmental and humanitarian elements that foster resilience and assure food security for all. Those are core goals in the international pledge to achieve the Sustainable Development Agenda by 2030, and let me emphasize that the price tag for failure would be far higher than the one for success.

There is no single solution. That’s evident when one considers the Middle East and North Africa region, which comprises extraordinary diversity. Per-capita GDP levels range enormously between nations, as does the scale of food self-sufficiency.

No man is an island, as a poet wrote almost 500 years ago, and likewise no government can go it alone. That’s especially the case for a region that currently imports about half of all its wheat, barley and maize, and where 60 percent of the fresh water - a binding constraint on food production and notably in short supply in the area –flows across national boundaries.

On a positive note, the Near East and North Africa Water Scarcity Initiative – comprised of FAO and a network of more than 30 national and international organizations – has been set up to foster truly regional efforts to save water all along the food value chain.

While there are no simple solutions, our goal is to identify the smart choices that can be made. We must collect more data and change behaviours, both map the territory – and make the data useful and available for small farmers, whose contribution we must see as ultimately a service to humanity worth paying for - and move the needle on the ground by convincing farmers their efforts will be rewarded.

FAO’s work in the region ranges from important emergency efforts in response to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen to running Farmer Field Schools in Egypt and helping the UAE develop its first national agricultural policy - an example of integrating multiple strategies with a sharp focus on water conservation and climate change.

Technology has much to offer if rolled out in a way that engages food producers and their needs. The UAE is planning to roll out water meters on farms while at the same time introducing smart subsidies targeting those who consume less water than average. Benefits range from better diagnostic data on actual water use and incentives to actual conservation practices to allocating the savings to farmers who can invest in their businesses for yet more efficiency.

That climate change poses such threats to an area known as the cradle of civilization underscores the need for urgent action to put agriculture at the center of the sustainability agenda.