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.


Lebanese president, PM and parliament speaker express satisfaction with Saudi-French agreement

Lebanese president, PM and parliament speaker express satisfaction with Saudi-French agreement
Updated 06 December 2021

Lebanese president, PM and parliament speaker express satisfaction with Saudi-French agreement

Lebanese president, PM and parliament speaker express satisfaction with Saudi-French agreement
  • MP Ali Darwish, from Mikati’s parliamentary bloc, hopes 'positive signs to emerge in coming days’

BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has affirmed his government’s commitment to honoring its undertakings for reform.

Mikati said that his joint phone call on Saturday with Saudi and French leaders was “an important step toward restoring historic brotherly relations with Riyadh.”

A joint Saudi-French statement, following the joint phone call between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and French President Macron with Mikati, linked “economic aid to Lebanon with the implementation of the required reforms.”

The statement reiterated demands that Lebanon should “implement comprehensive reforms, monitor borders, abide by the Taif Agreement, limit arms to the legitimate state institutions and not be a launching pad for any terrorist acts that destabilize the region (nor) a source of drug trafficking.”

Mikati also said: “I thank President Macron and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for their keenness in maintaining the friendship toward Lebanon.”

Mikati called both President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and briefed them on the phone call.

Mikati’s media office said that Aoun and Berri “expressed their satisfaction and stressed their adherence to the best relations with Saudi Arabia and all brotherly Arab countries, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.”

Mikati called “all parties in Lebanon to appreciate the sensitivity of the situation and circumstances and not to take any action or interfere in any matter that offends the Arab brothers and harms the Lebanese.”

He added: “It is time to commit again to the policy of disassociation and not to involve ourselves and our country in what has nothing to do with us.”

The Saudi position toward Lebanon left the Lebanese anxiously relieved about the extent of the seriousness of the ruling authority in implementing what was agreed on in Jeddah between French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Although Macron succeeded in opening the door to a solution to Lebanon’s diplomatic and economic crisis with Saudi Arabia, and thus the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, after the resignation of Information Minister George Kordahi from the government following his statements about the Kingdom, there is a fear that Hezbollah will continue to embroil Lebanon in regional politics.

However, MP Ali Darwish, who is from Prime Minister Mikati’s parliamentary bloc, expects “positive signs to emerge in the coming days.”

Darwish said that appointing a parliamentary committee to try presidents, ministers and MPs in return for allowing Cabinet sessions to take place was “one of the proposals.”

Darwish told Arab News that “the Saudi-French move has undoubtedly breached the wall of stalemate in Lebanon’s relationship with the Gulf, which Lebanon is keen to be extremely good in the midst of the conflict in the region.”

On the implementation of the French-Saudi statement, Darwish said: “The reforms are contained in the ministerial statement of Prime Minister Mikati’s government, and they are his government’s agenda, and he is striving to achieve them.”

Darwish added: “The most important thing now is to restore the connection that was cut off, to return the ambassadors to Saudi Arabia and some Gulf countries, and to return the Arab ambassadors to Lebanon.”

Darwish said that the Mikati government would “never interfere in the judicial matter, as there is a separation of powers.”

However, he indicated that activating the Parliamentary Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers was possible but it required steps to be taken by parliament.

Darwish added: “However, the trade-off between this matter and any other matter, especially the dismissal of the governor of the Banque du Liban, is not on the table.”

Darwish said that Mikati’s concern “is securing the livelihood of the Lebanese people in light of the current severe economic crisis.”

He said work was “now focused on rounding the corners and bringing the views closer.”


Hoping virus won’t wreck Christmas, Bethlehem lights up giant tree

Hoping virus won’t wreck Christmas, Bethlehem lights up giant tree
Updated 06 December 2021

Hoping virus won’t wreck Christmas, Bethlehem lights up giant tree

Hoping virus won’t wreck Christmas, Bethlehem lights up giant tree
  • It is very joyful, a very nice evening. The air is full of hope, full of joy, full of expectation

BETHLEHEM: Residents lit up a giant Christmas tree outside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, hoping that a new coronavirus variant does not ruin another holiday season in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

The Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank was all but closed last Christmas, losing its peak tourist season to the pandemic.

This December has seen Israel shut out foreign travelers for 14 days to try to prevent the omicron variant taking hold, and the hope is that the ban will end as scheduled, in time for Christmas travel. In its last pre-pandemic winter, in 2019/20, Bethlehem hosted 3.5 million visitors.

The giant tree, topped with a bright red star, was lit up with hundreds of colored lights as red, white and green fireworks illuminated the night sky.

Mayor Anton Salman said the travel ban had prevented several foreign delegations attending.

Nonetheless, the audience in Manger Square in front of the church was far bigger than last year, when coronavirus restrictions kept even local spectators away.

"It is very joyful, a very nice evening. The air is full of hope, full of joy, full of expectation," said Maria, a tourist from Finland who did not provide her full name.


Abu Dhabi crown prince, Blinken discuss regional issues

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed held a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (File/Wikipedia)
Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed held a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (File/Wikipedia)
Updated 05 December 2021

Abu Dhabi crown prince, Blinken discuss regional issues

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed held a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (File/Wikipedia)
  • Blinken thanked the UAE for hosting and facilitating the safe transit of US citizens, embassy personnel, and foreign nationals from Afghanistan
  • UAE foreign minister held separate talks with his counterparts from Oman, India and Sri Lanka

LONDON: Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed spoke with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday to discuss “important regional matters,” the US State Department said.
Sheikh Mohammed and Blinken “reaffirmed their countries’ strong partnership and discussed ways to broaden and deepen their wide-ranging cooperation,” spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“Blinken also thanked the crown prince for the UAE’s generous support in hosting and facilitating the safe transit of US citizens, embassy personnel, and foreign nationals from Afghanistan to third countries, and commended the UAE for providing humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan,” Price added.
Meanwhile, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed held separate talks with his counterparts from Oman, India and Sri Lanka on the sidelines of the two-day 5th Indian Ocean Conference, which kicked off on Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
During the meetings, Sheikh Abdullah discussed strategic relations and ways to enhance prospects for joint cooperation in all fields, as well as the latest regional and international developments.
Sheikh Abdullah welcomed Oman’s Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Al-Busaidi, and stressed the depth of the relations between the UAE and the sultanate.
India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar praised the strong friendship between the UAE and his country, and their strategic partnership which is witnessing continuous growth and development.
Sheikh Abdullah also welcomed Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Pierce to Abu Dhabi and the two sides discussed bilateral relations and ways to support them in various fields, including tourism.


Jordan’s FM, US climate envoy discuss environmental protection

Jordan’s FM, US climate envoy discuss environmental protection
Updated 05 December 2021

Jordan’s FM, US climate envoy discuss environmental protection

Jordan’s FM, US climate envoy discuss environmental protection
  • Safadi and Kerry stressed the importance of the strategic partnership between Jordan and the US

LONDON: Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi held talks with US special envoy for climate, John Kerry, on Sunday to discuss environmental protection and confronting climate change.
“Safadi and Kerry stressed the importance of the strategic partnership between the kingdom and the US, and reviewed ways to enhance cooperation between the two countries,” Jordanian state news agency Petra reported.
Safadi praised the aid provided by the US to the Kingdom and its support for economic development, stressing the importance of its leading role in efforts to resolving regional crises and achieve peace and stability.
Kerry said that Jordan was a strong and essential ally of the US, and that his country appreciated the key role and efforts led by King Abdullah II to overcome regional challenges and achieve security, stability and peace.
Kerry reiterated Washington’s support for Jordan, including in the areas of environmental protection, facing the challenges of climate change, and developing clean energy and water sources.
“This engagement with government counterparts aims to accelerate global climate action following the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November,” the US State Department said in a statement.
It added that Kerry would discuss how the region could collaborate to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.


Aboul Gheit: Iran seeks to control Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab

Aboul Gheit: Iran seeks to control Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab
Updated 05 December 2021

Aboul Gheit: Iran seeks to control Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab

Aboul Gheit: Iran seeks to control Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab
  • Aboul Gheit said that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would trigger an arms race in the region

CAIRO: The Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Ahmed Aboul Gheit has said that Iran aims to extend its control over the Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab, either directly or through militias it funds.

During his participation in the seventh Rome-Mediterranean Dialogue, held in the Italian capital with the participation of senior officials, experts and economists from countries bordering the shores of the Mediterranean, he pointed to attacks carried out by Iran in the summer of 2019, as well as to the continuing threat posed by the Houthis to navigation in the Red Sea.

The secretary-general added that the stability of navigation in these strategic straits, especially in the transportation of petroleum products, represented a fundamental backbone of the global economy, and that maintaining freedom of navigation without threat was a global priority and not only for the Arab countries bordering it.

He said that Iran’s behavior in the region, and its apparent tendency to dominate and interfere with Arab countries, was behind the difficulty in establishing a security system in the Gulf based on cooperation and the common welfare of the people.

He said that several initiatives had been put forward on this, but the main problem remained a lack of confidence due to Iranian policies that represented a threat to its neighbors.

Aboul Gheit said that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would trigger an arms race in the region. He hoped negotiations would succeed in dissuading Iran from achieving this goal to avoid a deterioration in the current security situation.

He said it was difficult to address the Iranian nuclear program without acknowledging that there was already a nuclear power in the region in Israel, especially in light of its insistence on destroying the two-state solution and wasting opportunities for its implementation.