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)
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.


Thousands of pro-military protesters rally against Sudan government

Thousands of pro-military protesters rally against Sudan government
Updated 38 min 49 sec ago

Thousands of pro-military protesters rally against Sudan government

Thousands of pro-military protesters rally against Sudan government
  • Saturday’s demonstrations were organized by a splinter faction of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC)
  • FFC is a civilian alliance which spearheaded the anti-Bashir protests and became a key plank of the transition

KHARTOUM: Thousands of pro-military Sudanese protesters took to the streets Saturday demanding the dissolution of the transitional government, saying it had “failed” them politically and economically.
The protests came as Sudanese politics reels from divisions among the factions steering the rocky transition from two decades of iron-fisted rule by Omar Al-Bashir, who was ousted by the army in April 2019 in the face of mass protests.
Saturday’s demonstrations were organized by a splinter faction of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a civilian alliance which spearheaded the anti-Bashir protests and became a key plank of the transition.
“We need a military government, the current government has failed to bring us justice and equality,” said Abboud Ahmed, a 50-year-old protester near the presidential palace in central Khartoum.
The official SUNA news agency reported that protesters had traveled in by truck from Khartoum’s outskirts and from neighboring states.
Critics alleged that the protests involved sympathizers of the Bashir regime, which was dominated by Islamists and the military.
Banners called for the “dissolution of the government.” Protesters chanted “one army, one people” and “the army will bring us bread.”
“We are marching in a peaceful protest and we want a military government,” said housewife Enaam Mohamed.
On Friday, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok warned that the transition is facing its “worst and most dangerous” crisis.
The mainstream faction of the FFC said: “The current crisis is not related to dissolution of the government of not.
“It is engineered by some parties to overthrow the revolutionary forces... paving the way for the return of remnants of the previous regime.”
Support for the transitional government has waned in recent months in the face of a tough package of IMF-backed economic reforms, including the slashing of fuel subsidies and a managed float of the Sudanese pound.
Protests have rocked eastern Sudan where demonstrators have blocked trade through the key hub of Port Sudan since September.
On September 21, the government said it thwarted a coup attempt which it blamed on both military officers and civilians linked to Bashir’s regime.


Families of Beirut blast victims back judge amid pressure

Families of Beirut blast victims back judge amid pressure
Updated 16 October 2021

Families of Beirut blast victims back judge amid pressure

Families of Beirut blast victims back judge amid pressure
  • The families’ statement was apparently meant to counter a video released by their spokesman on social media Friday in which he calls on Judge Tarek Bitar to step down
  • The spokesman could not be reached for comment and it was unclear if he had made the video under pressure

BEIRUT: The families of the victims of Beirut’s massive port blast last year reaffirmed Saturday their support for the judge leading the investigation into the explosion, despite increasing calls for his ouster by the militant Hezbollah group and its allies.
The families’ statement was apparently meant to counter a video released by their spokesman on social media late Friday in which he calls on Judge Tarek Bitar to step down.
The spokesman, Ibrahim Hoteit, could not be reached for comment. It was unclear if he had made the video under pressure. The families said he had not coordinated with them, which he always does before making public announcement, and that the video took them by surprise.
Since the August 2020 explosion at Beirut’s port that killed at least 215 people, the families of the victims have taken on an increasingly prominent role in Lebanon with their demands for accountability. After the blast, it emerged from documents that several senior politicians and security chiefs knew of the hundreds of tons of highly combustible ammonium nitrate stored haphazardly in a port warehouse and did nothing about it.
On Thursday, gunbattles erupted on Beirut streets between two camps opposing and supporting the judge in the probe, killed seven and wounded dozens.
The violence broke out at a protest organized by Hezbollah and Amal groups, which have called for Bitar’s removal. The two groups have suggested the investigation is heading toward holding them responsible for the blast.
“We, the families of more than 200 martyrs and thousands of injured and hundreds of thousands of people who suffered damages, have put our faith in investigative judge Tarek Bitar,” the families said.
In the video, the spokesman demands the judge step down because “the situation has turned into shedding of the blood of innocent people” — a reference to Thursday’s violence. The spokesman’s younger brother was killed in the port explosion.
Judge Bitar has charged and issued arrests warrant for Lebanon’s former ministers of finance and public works, both close allies of Hezbollah. Bitar has charged the two, along with another former minister and prime minister, with intentional killing and negligence that led to the blast.


Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Updated 16 October 2021

Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe
  • Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already served a five-year prison sentence in Iran
  • Her lawyer said the appeals court upheld a verdict issued earlier this year sentencing her to another year

TEHRAN: An Iranian appeals court has upheld a verdict sentencing an Iranian-British woman long held in Tehran to another year in prison, her lawyer said Saturday.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already served a five-year prison sentence in the Islamic Republic. Her lawyer Hojjat Kermani told The Associated Press that the appeals court upheld a verdict issued earlier this year sentencing her to another year.
The verdict additionally includes a one-year travel ban abroad, meaning she cannot leave Iran to join her family for nearly two years.
In April, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced for allegedly spreading “propaganda against the system” when she participated in a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009.
Kermani said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “concerned” when he informed her about the appeals court decision. He said his client is in touch with her family.
State media in Iran did not immediately acknowledge the ruling, apparently issued after a closed-door hearing.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny. While employed at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, she was taken into custody at the Tehran airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family.
Rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual-nationals as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies. Iran does not recognize dual nationalities, so detainees like Zaghari-Ratcliffe cannot receive consular assistance.
Authorities furloughed Zaghari-Ratcliffe from prison because of the surging coronavirus pandemic and she has been restricted to her parents’ Tehran home since.


Arab coalition says 160 Houthis killed, 11 military vehicles destroyed in Abedia

Arab coalition says 160 Houthis killed, 11 military vehicles destroyed in Abedia
Updated 16 October 2021

Arab coalition says 160 Houthis killed, 11 military vehicles destroyed in Abedia

Arab coalition says 160 Houthis killed, 11 military vehicles destroyed in Abedia
  • Abedia is a district in Yemen’s Marib which has been under a Houthi siege since Sept. 23
  • The coalition added that it continues to support the Yemeni army in its efforts to protect civilians from Houthi violations

RIYADH: The Arab coalition said on Saturday that 160 Houthis had been killed and 11 military vehicles destroyed in operations in Abedia.

The coalition said it had carried out 32 operations targeting Houthis in Marib’s Abedia district over the past 24 hours.

Abedia is a district in Yemen’s Marib which has been under a Houthi siege since Sept. 23, hindering the movement of civilians and impeding humanitarian aid flows.

The coalition added that it continues to support the Yemeni army in its efforts to protect civilians from Houthi violations.

The coalition announced on Friday that it had killed over 180 Houthis and destroyed ten military vehicles in similar operations in Abedia.


Turkish soldiers beat Afghan asylum seekers, force returns to Iran, claims HRW

Turkish soldiers beat Afghan asylum seekers, force returns to Iran, claims HRW
Updated 16 October 2021

Turkish soldiers beat Afghan asylum seekers, force returns to Iran, claims HRW

Turkish soldiers beat Afghan asylum seekers, force returns to Iran, claims HRW
  • The practice is in violation of international law and some families have been separated as a result: HRW
  • Some people had their bones broken as a result of the force used by Turkish soldiers

LONDON: Turkish authorities are violently returning Afghan asylum seekers from Iran as soon as they arrive in Turkey, Human Rights Watch has said.

The practice is in violation of international law and some families have been separated as a result, the rights organization said. 

Six Afghans, five of whom were pushed back, told HRW that the Turkish army had severely beat them and their fellow travelers and expelled them in groups of 50 to 300 people as they tried to cross the border into Turkey.

Some people had their bones broken as a result of the force used. 

“Turkish authorities are denying Afghans trying to flee to safety the right to seek asylum,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at HRW. “Turkish soldiers are also brutally mistreating the Afghans while unlawfully pushing them back.”

“EU member states should not consider Turkey a safe third country for Afghan asylum seekers and should suspend all deportations and forced returns of Afghan nationals, including to third countries like Turkey where their rights would not be respected,” Wille said.

“They should also ensure that Afghans entering the EU via Turkey have access to fair and efficient asylum procedures,” he added.

HRW said it had remotely interviewed six Afghans between Sept. 25 and Oct. 11. Five of them were hiding in Turkey to avoid being expelled to Iran, and one had been forcibly returned to Iran for a third time. All had fled Afghanistan shortly before or after Aug. 15, when the Taliban took control of Kabul.

The Afghans said they had traveled through Pakistan and Iran, and that Iranian smugglers took them to the border with Turkey in the middle of the night and told them to run across. Turkish soldiers fired above their heads and two said they were brutally beaten by soldiers.

One of the Afghans said he successfully remained in Turkey on his first attempt while another had been deported back to Iran. The other four said Turkish soldiers forced them back up to three times before they succeeded in remaining in Turkey.

Two said that Turkish forces destroyed their possessions, and those of everyone in the group they were expelled with. 

“Once they arrested us, they confiscated our phones, money, food, and anything else we were carrying and burned all of our things in a big fire,” one woman said. “I assume they did this to send the message that we should not try to cross the border again.” 

One man said they stripped the men in his group down to their underwear, burned their clothes and belongings, and then forcibly returned them.

Another man said that soldiers beat them with the butts of their guns and that several men in his group had broken hands, arms, and legs from the cruel beatings.

Another man said he saw Turkish soldiers beating people he had crossed with and that they were covered in blood and had wounds to their heads.

“They beat me for about 20 minutes with the butts of their guns and sticks, leaving me bleeding,” he said.

One woman said that on her third attempt to cross into Turkey with her two children, her brother, his wife, and their child, Turkish soldiers detained her brother and his wife and expelled them, leaving their child with her.

Turkey hosts the world’s largest number of refugees including 3.7 million from Syria who have been granted temporary protection status, and over 400,000 refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. 

HRW has previously documented illegal pushbacks and beatings of asylum seekers, including returning refugees to Syria.

The organization said that while most people interviewed said they were forcibly returned close to the border, one man said that he and eight of his relatives were deported after they went to a local immigration office in Turkey after feeling ill.

“When we got there, the authorities arrested us and took our phones and turned them off, so the rest of our family had no idea what happened to us,” he said.

“They held us for two nights and one day, and only fed us twice … after the second night they put us onto buses with about 100 other people and drove us to the border. One soldier at the border told us, ‘here is the border. Don’t come back. If you do, we will beat you.’”