FAO Regional Office for Near East and North Africa

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How Arab world can overcome food and nutrition crises

Volunteers from the Trust team distribute food boxes to poor families, near Baghdad, Iraq, Mar. 28, 2023.

©Reuters

Tags: agricultural systems agri-systems Arab region Food Security healthy diets nutrition strategic investment
Abdulhakim Elwaer - 14 Aug 2023

The Arab region is facing unprecedented challenges in its efforts to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition and ensure that everyone has access to adequate and affordable healthy diets. This is due to multiple challenges and factors beyond the actions and controls of Arab countries. However, the consequences of these challenges and factors have burdened populations generally and governments too as they seek to ensure the minimum food security by providing subsidies and other forms of support. These are becoming challenging policy tools to implement due to tight fiscal space.
It does not seem like there will be a significant improvement in the situation in the near future. Recent crises, such as the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing negative impacts of climate change, have stressed agrifood systems and disrupted food supply chains around the world, including in the Arab region. In fact, this is one of the most affected regions, mainly due to its heavy reliance on food imports from global markets and the Black Sea region in particular.
According to the joint UN report “2022 Near East and North Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition,” which was recently published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Arab region accounted for 7.6 percent of the world’s total agricultural imports in 2020. The countries of the Near East and North Africa are among the world’s largest importers of grains and more than 50 percent of their caloric requirements are met through food imports.
The report highlights the significant crisis the region is facing due to this situation, with the number of people suffering from malnutrition reaching 54.3 million in 2021, or 12.2 percent of the total population. This represents a 55 percent increase on the figure for 2010 — that is, before the region was hit by major shocks resulting from a wave of conflicts and popular uprisings. The number of people suffering from severe food insecurity in 2021 was estimated at 53.9 million, an increase of 5 million from the previous year.
Moderate or severe food insecurity rates also continued to rise, negatively affecting an estimated 154.3 million people in 2021, an increase of 11.6 million people compared to 2020. The number of people suffering from food insecurity has been steadily increasing since 2014, with 34.7 percent of the total population suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity in 2021. More than half of the Arab population could not afford a healthy diet.
At first glance, these indicators and figures suggest that the Arab region is unlikely to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 of eliminating hunger by 2030, in addition to many other challenges, including climate change, conflicts, disasters and structural problems such as poverty and inequality.

"Enhancing integration between Arab countries and intraregional trade would help in reducing the food import bill." Abdulhakim Elwaer

However, despite these alarming figures, there is still a chance to reverse this situation, overcome these crises and challenges, and return to the path toward achieving food and nutrition goals by bringing about a transformation in the food and agri-systems of the region’s countries to make them more inclusive, sustainable and resilient. Some countries in the region have begun to realize this and are striving to prepare their food and agricultural systems for this transformation through various sustainable agricultural and rural development strategies.
The first step toward this change is to enhance and disseminate the necessary knowledge, technology and enabling frameworks such as financing. Moreover, enhancing integration between Arab countries and intraregional trade would help in reducing the food import bill, while optimally utilizing local resources. This requires strategic investment in all these areas, along with a high-level political will and the development of clear and tested policies.
Our attempt to reduce the food import bill should not neglect the importance of trade in ensuring the achievement of the four dimensions of food and nutrition security, which are availability, access, utilization and stability. Trade can increase the quantity and diversity of food and reduce its prices in food-importing countries. International trade, therefore, is essential for diverse and healthy food systems in the region.

 

 

Abdulhakim Elwaer is Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.