How the specter of food insecurity can be banished from the Arab region

Special A boy waits as Palestinian Walid al-Hattab (R) distributes soup to people in need during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in Gaza City on April 14, 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)
A boy waits as Palestinian Walid al-Hattab (R) distributes soup to people in need during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in Gaza City on April 14, 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 16 October 2021

How the specter of food insecurity can be banished from the Arab region

A boy waits as Palestinian Walid al-Hattab (R) distributes soup to people in need during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in Gaza City on April 14, 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Helping humanity gain equitable access to safe and nutritious food to top the agenda at upcoming UN summit
  • Nations urged to promote healthier foods, sustainability, greater resilience to shocks and decent life for farmers

DUBAI: Harnessing science, technology and innovation will be key to ensuring sustainable, inclusive and resilient food systems by 2030, experts have said ahead of September’s UN Food Systems Summit in New York.

However, much needs to be done to ensure the world is prepared to feed a population that is projected to grow from 7.9 billion today to 9.7 billion by 2050 — an almost 10-fold leap since 1950.

“Everybody is concerned about the transformation of food systems,” Jean-Marc Faures, program leader at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Regional Office for the Near East and North Africa (NENA), told Arab News.

“We are all part of this global food system that has done marvels in terms of feeding a growing global population. But it has a lot of shortcomings that need to be addressed if we want to achieve the sustainable development goals.”

Launched by the UN General Assembly in 2015, the sustainable development goals, or SDGs, are a collection of 17 interlinked global targets designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” by 2030.

The NENA region has a finite supply of arable land and freshwater, which limits its capacity to produce its own food and forces governments to rely heavily on imports. The way food is produced must improve through bold innovations along the entire chain — from the quality of products, seeds and animal breeds, to the resistance of staple crops to drought.

“Climate change is also a major challenge to agricultural production because it is bringing more uncertain climate and more variability in precipitation, which is fundamental for agricultural production,” Faures said.

 

“So, we need crops that can withstand a long period of time without rain, or crops and animals that can handle increasing heat waves. These climate-change issues need a response, and a lot of it will need to come from technologies.”

Agricultural technologies, also known as agritech, made major strides during the 20th century, including the dawn of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and mechanization. In the latter half of the century, further leaps were made in genetic modification, drip irrigation, hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics, to name but a few.

Then, in the early decades of the new millennium, digital technologies began to make their farming debut, in everything from data collection and computation for improving crop efficiency to robotics and driverless tractors.




A picture shows the UAE's al-Badia Farms in Dubai, an indoor vertical farm using innovative hydroponic technology to grow fruits and vegetables all year round, on August 4, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

With the right investment and training, tomorrow’s farmers could be making regular use of artificial intelligence, remote sensing, geographic information software, virtual reality, drone technology, application programming interface (API) technology, and a host of precision tools for measuring rainfall, controlling pests and analyzing soil nutrients.

However, despite the march of progress, food production has not been as “green” as it could have been. Fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals have polluted soils and waterways, and harmed the earth’s biodiversity. Although they kill off pests, these toxic agents have also proven harmful to other species and even humans.

“We’ve seen a series of issues coming out of what, at the time, was considered a great technological success, and now we need to address these issues,” Faures said.

“We’ve lost so much in biodiversity — from crops to animals — mostly due to agriculture. It’s the number one sector affecting the environment, so now is really the time to find another way to address food production, because the environmental impact has been too much in all possible ways.”

Chief among the issues that will be addressed at the UN Food Systems Summit is humanity’s equitable access to safe and nutritious food. With crisis and conflict blighting many corners of the NENA region, food insecurity has become widespread. “It is unacceptable,” Faures said. “We need to continue fighting hunger in all possible ways.”




Yemeni 10-year-old girl Ahmadia Abdo, who weighs ten kilograms due to acute malnutrition, squats as her mother washes clothes at a camp for the internally displaced in the northern Hajjah Governorate. (AFP/File Photo)

Conflict has been the primary driver behind a rise in hunger across the NENA region since 2015-17, according to a report published in June by a coalition of aid agencies, including the FAO.

The report, titled “Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition in the Near East and North Africa 2020: Enhancing Resilience of Food Systems in the Arab States,” estimated that around 51.4 million people, or about 12.2 percent of the population, in the region were already going hungry before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further exacerbated disruptions to supply chains and livelihoods.

Around 137 million people in the region were deemed to be either moderately or severely food insecure, lacking regular access to sufficient and nutritious food — a trend that is expected to worsen unless measures are taken to improve systemic resilience.

INNUMBERS

*12.2% - NENA population that was hungry before the pandemic.

*137m - NENA population moderately or severely food insecure.

*75m - NENA people who may be affected by hunger by 2030. 

*50% - Arab region’s population unable to afford a healthy diet.

* 720-811m - People who faced hunger worldwide in 2020.

(Source: FAO) 

As a result of this trend, the region will almost certainly fail to meet its SDG commitment to eliminate hunger by the end of the decade. In fact, based on its current trajectory, the number of people affected by food shortages is expected to rise above 75 million by 2030.

What is especially troubling about its findings is the impact that hunger and food insecurity is having on public health and child development. According to the report’s 2019 estimates, 22.5 percent of children in the region under the age of 5 were stunted, 9.2 percent wasted and 9.9 percent overweight.

Also owing to poor nutrition, 27 percent of the region’s adult population are classified as obese, making the Arab region the second-worst offender for obesity in the world. The same dietary shortcomings have left 35 percent of women of reproductive age anemic.

Although conflict was found to be the leading cause of food insecurity, the report also highlighted the weaknesses of regional food systems, hampered by the effects of climate change, bad policymaking, and economic disruption even before the global pandemic.




A farmer havests leafy vegetables in a field on the mountain range of Jabel Jais, in the UAE emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah. (AFP/File Photo)

“In our region, the pandemic has severely disrupted the food chain for animals. Farmers who rear livestock need to buy food for their animals,” Faures said.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, everything stopped, and they didn’t have food for animals. This is just one example, but it was the same for many other inputs and the system wasn’t ready to sustain a shock like that.”

Other pressures on food supply chains are water scarcity, inequality, population growth, mass migration and a strong dependence on imports. Indeed, the NENA region imports about 63 percent of its food — the highest import dependency of the world’s five regions.

Another driver of NENA food insecurity is the high cost of healthy eating, with nutritious diets that include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, pulses, meat and dairy estimated to cost about five times more than one that meets basic energy needs through starchy staples such as rice and bread.




Palestinian volunteer cook Amal Abu Amra, 41, distributes food prepared with ingredients obtained from donors, to help needy families in an impoverished neighbourhood in Gaza City. (AFP/File Photo)

Healthy diets are unaffordable for more than 50 percent of the Arab region’s population — higher than the global average of 38 percent.

“Consumers are disconnected from food production,” Faures said. “But their choices and the way they treat food has an impact on their health and the whole food chain, especially when there are consumption patterns that are much less sustainable than others and people need to be aware of this.”

Several factors are out of the public’s control. Over the course of 2020 and 2021, the NENA region was blighted by desert locusts, which ravaged cropland. Faures said that the international community and regional powers should work together to establish systems to combat these plagues, ensuring such shocks do not translate into famines.

“We need to provide some kind of social protection for people hit hard by these,” he said.




Egyptian cattle traders gather at the Ashmun market in Egypt's Menufia Governorate, as they try to sell livestock to customers ahead of the annual Muslim Eid Al-Adha holiday. (AFP/File Photo)

Although technology and innovation are fundamental elements in helping alleviate the burden, the world cannot rely on these alone. According to Faures, efforts must be directed toward promoting healthier foods, more sustainable production and consumption, resilience to shocks and a better life for food producers.

“There will be innovation that will contribute to one or the other and maybe even trade-offs between these dimensions of sustainability,” he said. “But there will also be the need to make choices.”

Faures wants to see good governance and private-sector incentives, in addition to an increase in the role of civil society, as facilitators of change in the way food is produced.

“There is a big role for the private sector to play because it is an essential element in today’s food system,” he said. “We are all in this game together.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek

Decoder

World Food Day

World Food Day is celebrated every year on Oct. 16 to commemorate the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945 and to highlight the ongoing mission to eliminate world hunger. This year, the emphasis is on celebrating “food heroes” who have contributed to building a sustainable world where no one has to go hungry.


US, Iran chief negotiators to start nuclear talks in Qatar

US, Iran chief negotiators to start nuclear talks in Qatar
Updated 13 sec ago

US, Iran chief negotiators to start nuclear talks in Qatar

US, Iran chief negotiators to start nuclear talks in Qatar
DOHA: Chief negotiators from the United States and Iran began indirect talks in Qatar on Tuesday, bidding to remove obstacles that have stalled attempts to revive a landmark nuclear deal.
The indirect negotiations headed by US special envoy Robert Malley and Iran’s Ali Bagheri come after more than a year of European Union-mediated talks in Vienna on a return to the 2015 agreement between Tehran and world powers.
The Doha talks also come just two weeks before US President Joe Biden’s first visit to the region since taking office, when efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be high on the agenda.
“Indirect messages have been exchanged between the parties involved,” a diplomat in the region told AFP.
Iran’s state news agency IRNA published a photo of Bagheri meeting with the European Union’s coordinator for the talks, Enrique Mora.
EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano said earlier that the Doha discussions were the start of a process to “unblock” the long-running Vienna negotiations that have stalled since March.
“We managed to unblock the process and we are going to move forward, and as a first step at this stage we have these proximity talks,” he said in Brussels.
The 2015 deal gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program to guarantee that Tehran could not develop a nuclear weapon — something it has always denied wanting to do.
The deal has been hanging by a thread since 2018, when then US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from it and began reimposing harsh economic sanctions on America’s arch-enemy.
The delegations are in separate rooms and communicating via intermediaries. The US and Iran do not have diplomatic relations.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has sought to return to the agreement, saying it would be the best path ahead with the Islamic republic, although it has voiced growing pessimism in recent weeks.
Malley earlier met Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani to discuss “joint diplomatic efforts to address issues with Iran,” the US embassy in Doha tweeted.
Bagheri meanwhile met Qatar’s foreign ministry secretary-general, Ahmad bin Hassen Al-Hammadi, Qatar’s foreign ministry said.
Sheikh Mohammed also discussed the Iran talks with his French counterpart Catherine Colonna in a phone call on Tuesday, the official Qatar News Agency said.
Qatar hopes the indirect talks will culminate in “positive results that contribute to the revival of the nuclear deal signed in 2015,” the foreign ministry said.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said during a visit to Tehran on Saturday that the Iran-US talks would be held in a Gulf country to avoid confusion with the broader talks in Vienna.
Qatar, which has better relations with Iran than most Gulf Arab monarchies, also hosted US-Taliban talks before the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan last year.
The Vienna talks began in April 2021 but hit a snag in March following differences between Tehran and Washington, notably over Iran’s demand that its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be removed from a US terror list.
Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute think tank, called the Doha talks a “moment of reckoning” for the nuclear process.
“The Iranians and the Americans both seem to believe the talks in Doha represent a sink-or-swim moment for US-Iran nuclear negotiations,” he wrote in an analysis.
The timing appears good, with Iran likely to want a deal before US congressional elections in November, where Biden’s Democrats are predicted to lose seats and possibly lose interest in the nuclear talks, Vatanka said.
High oil prices and the lack of spare capacity were also an opportunity for Iran to push for relief from its crippling economic sanctions, he added.
US sanctions imposed since 2018 have extended to Iran’s oil exports, but Biden and the EU are keen to see a dramatic fall in energy prices after they were sent surging by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group think tank, tweeted: “Having the two key protagonists in one place is a necessary ingredient for diplomacy to succeed.
“But a breakthrough is far from assured.”

Mikati continues consultations on draft government as delay extends

Mikati continues consultations on draft government as delay extends
Updated 11 min 47 sec ago

Mikati continues consultations on draft government as delay extends

Mikati continues consultations on draft government as delay extends
  • FPM and Lebanese Forces continue to block PM-designate’s attempts to put an end to the political blockage

BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati, who has been tasked with forming a new Lebanese government at the end of his non-binding parliamentary consultations on Tuesday, said that he “went over the opinions of the MPs and we will take most of what they said into consideration, but what matters is that national interest prevails.”

Mikati said that the opinions shared by the MPs “are in the national interest, even if from different angles.” 

He hoped to be able to form a government “that can carry out its duty and continue what the previous government has started, especially with the IMF, the electricity plan and the file of maritime border demarcation,” hoping that things “would take shape in a proper way.”

If Mikati succeeds in forming this government, it will be his second government under President Michel Aoun’s term; if not, he will remain a prime minister-designate as a caretaker.

The second day of consultations saw the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, issue an ambiguous position. 

Bassil confirmed that “the bloc isn’t interested in participating in the new government but we didn’t meet as a bloc yet to confirm the matter.”

He opposes Mikati and the FPM did not name him in the formation of a government.

He said: “We told Mikati why we don’t agree with the government formation. There’s a real problem with the credibility of the designation and we raised the issue with him, but we overcame this problem given the country’s situation.”

Bassil said that the movement is “against any government stripped of its powers, and we emphasized that it’s important for the government to deal with important files, including the file of the governorship of the central bank.”

At the same time, Bassil denied that he had made a “demand or imposed a condition before Mikati.” 

He said that “making amendments to the current government is a wrong bet,” adding: “We are against a presidential gap and we will prevent it from happening.”

Bassil’s statement was remarkable, especially when he said that “Mikati’s designation lacks credibility” but decided to turn a blind eye given the country’s situation.

The Free Patriotic Movement bloc and the Lebanese Forces bloc did not propose Mikati to form a government during the binding parliamentary consultations held by President Aoun last week. 

However, a source close to Mikati pointed out that the two Christian parties do not fully represent all Christians and that some MPs with popular representation nominated Mikati.

The source said that “the FPM is insisting on having an efficient government that isn’t stripped of its powers for the purpose of implementing a political agenda, as the president’s bloc wants to appoint people affiliated with the party to critical positions before the end of the term, including appointing a new governor for the central bank.”

Head of the Kataeb party Samy Gemayel warned against “the danger of adopting a no-government logic before the presidential elections.” 

He believes that “wasting time in these dangerous circumstances the country is going through is deadly for the Lebanese who are suffering on all levels.” 

Gemayel emphasized “the need to form an independent government as fast as possible to stop the collapse.”

After meeting with Mikati, MP Oussama Saad said that “Lebanon needs a government that can safely transport the country from the current political reality to a new reality capable of facing challenges and crises.” 

He added: “The presidential elections are imminent. Can we elect a new president who is independent of the internal and external axes? Are the internal blocs controlling the state’s decision ready to carry out a rescue project?”

MP Jihad Al-Samad ruled out the possibility of forming a new government “as it is hard to form a government with the ongoing petulance and selfishness.” 

He said that he demanded “that the current government be activated, either by regranting it the parliament’s confidence to revive it, or by expanding the concept of caretaking.”

MP Bilal Houshaymi said that “the decision not to participate in the government is wrong. The previous government implemented some reforms that should be completed and all blocs should cooperate to form a government. People put their trust in the parliament and we should seek to get out of the axis of hell.”

The Armenian MPs bloc expressed its interest in participating in the government. MP Hagop Pakradounian said: “A new government should be formed as soon as possible and we should avoid the game of conditions and counter-conditions. We hope that Mikati will have a governmental lineup in the coming couple of days.”

Head of the Lebanese Forces Media and Communication Department Charles Jabbour ruled out the possibility of a new government formation “because the formation of governments in Lebanon usually takes between two to three months at least, noting that the new government, if formed, will have four months to be able to assume its role.”

Regarding the position of MP Gebran Bassil, the political rival of the Lebanese Forces, Jabbour told Arab News: “The stated position is different from the implicit one. Bassil has said before that competent governments ended and a political government is what is needed. He refuses that the caretaker government remains until the end of the term because the FPM continues to hold on to appointments that are in its interest and wants to be part of the government in case of a presidential gap.”

Mikati is now working on a draft government expected to be submitted to the president so they can both sign the decree of its formation. The current ongoing prevention of its formation is being caused by the parliamentary blocs representing significant political forces that have decided not to participate in the government. 

Few expect this to change. Charles Jabbour said that “the blocs that didn’t nominate Mikati to form a government and won’t participate in the government will surely not grant it confidence in the parliament.” 

He added that the matter might depend on the ministerial statement but “I think that there will be a difficulty facing the formation of the new government.” 


Algeria jails Bouteflika-era energy minister for 20 years

Algeria jails Bouteflika-era energy minister for 20 years
Updated 37 min 22 sec ago

Algeria jails Bouteflika-era energy minister for 20 years

Algeria jails Bouteflika-era energy minister for 20 years
  • The Sonatrach officials were accused of prioritising Italian firm Saipem over an Emirati firm for a contract
  • Two other Bouteflika-era ministers had jail terms on corruption allegations upheld

ALGIERS: An Algerian appeals court on Tuesday upheld a 20-year prison sentence for corruption against Chakib Khelil, energy minister for a decade under longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the APS news agency reported.
The court also fined him two million dinars (about $13,600) and upheld prison sentences of five and six years respectively against Mohamed Meziane, ex-head of state oil and gas giant Sonatrach, and his deputy Abdelhafidh Feghouli.
The Sonatrach officials were accused of prioritising Italian firm Saipem over an Emirati firm for a contract to construct the Arzew gas complex in the western region of Oran — at Khelil’s behest.
The officials were also charged with “granting undue privileges,” abusing their positions and “concluding contracts in violation of laws and regulations,” APS reported.
Two other Bouteflika-era ministers had jail terms on corruption allegations upheld on appeal on Tuesday: Djamel Ould Abbes for six years and Said Berkat for four, the news agency said.
The court also sentenced two representatives of Saipem in absentia to five years in prison.
Saipem said in a statement that it intended to challenge the decision in Algeria’s supreme court.
In 2013, the Algerian judiciary had issued an international arrest warrant for Khelil over a case involving contracts between Sonatrach and foreign companies, including Saipem, a former subsidiary of Italian energy giant ENI.
Prosecutors in Milan had accused Saipem of paying bribes to obtain contracts in Algeria, and the subsidiary was fined in 2018, before being cleared by an appeals court in 2020.
Khelil, now 82, quit his post in 2010 and moved to the United States after being associated with a scandal involving high-ranking Sonatrach officials who were later jailed for corruption.
He returned to Algeria in 2016 after the cases were dropped — then left again after Bouteflika’s resignation in 2019 that sparked a string of investigations into graft by his officials.


Over 100 murders in Syria camp since Jan 2021: UN

Over 100 murders in Syria camp since Jan 2021: UN
Updated 28 June 2022

Over 100 murders in Syria camp since Jan 2021: UN

Over 100 murders in Syria camp since Jan 2021: UN
  • The Al-Hol camp is increasingly unsafe and the child detainees are being condemned to a life with no future
  • There have been "around 106 murders since January last year in the camp" and "many" of the victims were women, said the UN resident coordinator in Syria

GENEVA: More than 100 people, including many women, have been murdered in a Syrian camp in just 18 months, the UN said Tuesday, demanding countries repatriate their citizens.
The Al-Hol camp is increasingly unsafe and the child detainees are being condemned to a life with no future, said Imran Riza, the UN resident coordinator in Syria.
Al-Hol, in the Kurdish-controlled northeast, was meant as a temporary detention facility.
However, it still holds about 56,000 people, mostly Syrians and Iraqis, some of whom maintain links with the Daesh group, which seized swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
The rest are citizens of other countries, including children and other relatives of Daesh fighters.
Some 94 percent of the detainees are women and children, Riza, who has visited Al-Hol a handful of times, told reporters in Geneva.
“It’s a very harsh place and it’s become an increasingly unsafe place,” he said.
There have been “around 106 murders since January last year in the camp” and “many” of the victims were women, he added.
“There’s a great deal of gender-based violence... There’s a lot of no-go areas.”
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said violence was spiking in the camp, with another murder Tuesday — the seventh since June 11.
Out of 24 people murdered inside the camp this year, 16 were women, the Observatory added.
Riza said there were around 27,000 Iraqi detainees, 18-19,000 Syrians and around 12,000 third-country citizens.
While there have been some repatriations to Iraq, many other countries which “need to be accepting their people back” were refusing to do so.
“The majority of the population there are children. They are innocent. If you leave them in a place like Al-Hol, you’re essentially condemning them to not having a future.”
Riza said that when boys get to 12, 13 and 14, they are taken away from their families and put into a different center, where their future is one of radicalization and joining a militia.
“The only solution is emptying the camp,” he said.
Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011 after the violent repression of protests demanding regime change.
It quickly spiralled into a complex conflict that pulled in numerous actors, including militant groups and foreign powers. The war has left around half a million people dead and displaced millions.
Riza said the levels of need in Syria were unprecedented and increasing, with 14.6 million people requiring humanitarian assistance — up 1.2 million since 2021 and the highest since the civil war began.
Riza said the country was facing a “cascade of crises,” with the key factor now the economic decline dragging down socio-economic conditions.
“The impact on Syrians is devastating and families are increasingly pushed into destitution,” he said, with more than 90 percent of the population estimated to live below the poverty line.


Renewable energy in Middle East to reach 92 percent of region's targets by 2030: Report

Renewable energy in Middle East to reach 92 percent of region's targets by 2030: Report
Updated 28 June 2022

Renewable energy in Middle East to reach 92 percent of region's targets by 2030: Report

Renewable energy in Middle East to reach 92 percent of region's targets by 2030: Report
  • A GEM report found that Arab countries are constructing solar and wind energy plants with a predicted total capacity of 73.4 GW

LONDON: Renewable energy generation projects in the Arab countries will reach nearly 92 percent of the region's total targets by 2030, according to a Global Energy Monitor report published Tuesday.The Arab region currently produces more than 12 gigatonnes of wind and solar energy, the report said.

In 2013, the Arab League clean energy initiative pledged to increase the region's installed renewable power generation capacity from 12 gigatonnes to 80 gigatonnes by 2030.

The report found that Arab countries are constructing solar and wind energy plants with a total capacity of 73.4 gigatonnes, which is nearly five times the region's current renewable energy production.

These projects include 114 solar power plants and 45 wind power plants.

The report also said that Egypt produces the most renewable energy, with 3.5 gigatonnes, followed by the UAE with 2.6 gigatonnes, Morocco with 1.9 gigatonnes, Jordan with 1.7 gigatonnes, and Saudi Arabia with 0.78 gigatonnes.

The UAE leads the region in utility-scale solar energy generation, with 2.6 gigatonnes of capacity.

Egypt is the region's wind leader, with 1.6 gigatonnes of electricity generated by wind farms.Oman, Morocco, and Algeria, on the other hand, are pursuing more than 39.7 gigatonnes of potential solar and wind energy projects.

These countries are expected to top the list of renewable energy producers in the near future, the report concluded.