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 control of the Arab countries. The consequences, however, of these challenges and factors have burdened the population widely and burdened the governments to ensure minimum food security by providing subsidies and other forms of support; which is becoming challenging in itself as a policy tool, due to tight fiscal space.
In the near future, it does not seem that there will be a significant improvement in the current situation. The recent crises such as the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war, the Covid-19 and ongoing negative impacts of climate change has stressed the agrifood systems and disrupted food supply chains around the world, including in the Arab region. In fact, it was one of the most affected regions in the world, mainly due to its heavy reliance on food imports from global markets and the Black Sea region.
According to the joint UN Report “2022 Near East and North Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition” recently published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the Arab region accounted for 7.6 per cent 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 grain, and more than 50 per cent of the caloric requirements of their citizens are met through food imports. In the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Yemen, more than 80 per cent of the total local availability of calories comes from 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 per cent of the total population. This represents a 55 per cent increase over the figures of 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 is 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, with 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 per cent of the total population suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity in 2021. More than half 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.
However, despite these alarming figures, there is still a chance to reverse this situation, overcome these crises and challenges, and return to the right path towards achieving food and nutrition goals by bringing about a transformation in the food and agri-systems of the region to make them more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient. Some countries in the region have begun to realise 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 towards this change is to enhance and disseminate necessary knowledge and technology and enabling frameworks such as financing. Moreover, enhancing integration between the countries and intra-regional trade would help to reduce the food import bill, while optimally utilising local resources in the Arab countries. This requires strategic investment in all these areas, along with a high level of 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, utilisation, 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.
The writer is assistant director-general and regional representative for the Near East and North Africa, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly