How COVID-19 crisis undermined MENA states’ food security progress

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, 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, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 21 November 2021

How COVID-19 crisis undermined MENA states’ food security progress

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, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Food price volatility has increased in a region where hunger was on the rise even prior to COVID-19, a FAO study warns
  • MENA’s progress toward UN SDG of zero hunger has been set back by the pandemic, the study says

DUBAI: Progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the Middle East and North Africa region has been hit hard by the global pandemic, with many of the achievements of the past decade reversed, according to a new report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

FAO says that at least 132 million people have been plunged into chronic hunger since the start of the pandemic, with up to 14 percent of food lost along the supply chain before it reaches consumers, and entire regions facing acute water stress.

“It is not a good feeling to see these figures,” Ahmad Mukhtar, the FAO’s senior economist for the Near East and North Africa, told Arab News, referring to the report’s findings.

“These are alarming figures for the MENA region because, for some years, the numbers were almost steady and we had seen a decrease in this absolute number. But COVID-19 stopped that and now it’s on the rise, so these figures are serious.”

Areas where progress has stalled, or gone into reverse, include agricultural systems and small-scale food production, which have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s economic toll, the report says.

It adds that food price volatility has increased due to the pandemic and associated lockdown measures, while progress remains weak in maintaining plant and animal genetic diversity for food and agriculture.

“In the Arab region, hunger was already on the rise before COVID-19, primarily because of climate change and conflicts,” Mukhtar said.

“The pandemic increased the number of undernourished people. However, if we look at the past two decades, our region has almost doubled in the number of undernourished people, reaching 69 million last year, which is a 91 percent increase.”

Mukhtar says conflict is the leading obstacle to food security in the MENA region, followed by climate change and calamities such as COVID-19.




A Syrian child sifts through a garbage dump, desperate for something to sell, repurpose or even eat, near an oil field in the countryside of Malikiya in northeast Syria. (AFP/File Photo)

Coupled with chronic inequalities and poverty, these threats mean the sustainable development goal of zero hunger by 2030 will be unachievable unless radical steps are taken immediately.

“We now have to tackle more than 800 million hungry people in seven years, which looks quite unlikely unless drastic measures are taken around the world,” he said.

“For the region, there are challenges that predate the pandemic. COVID-19 has added to them.”

Hayatullah Ahmadzai, a postdoctoral fellow at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai, said that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on human health and the world economy, as shown by several development indicators.

“Agriculture and food production are not exempt,” Ahmadzai told Arab News. “On the production side, the pandemic could lead to a drop in output because of a manpower shortage and a reduction in agricultural holdings.”




Palestinian farmer Amouna Abu Rajila, 66, works in her family farm near the border with Israel, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on March 29, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

He said lockdowns, a fall in international trade, disruption to food manufacturing, and an overall economic downturn are likely to have a substantial and lasting impact on food supply chains.

Disruption to food systems has resulted in reduced access to food, widening the gap between food security and zero hunger goals. Globally, the FAO report says, moderate or severe food insecurity has been steadily increasing, from 26.6 percent in 2019 to 30.4 percent in 2020.

Several Middle Eastern countries were vulnerable to food insecurity due to harsh environments and limited natural resources for sustainable crop production even before the pandemic.

“Food security has been further compromised by economic shocks and plummeting earnings linked to the pandemic outbreak and the collapse of oil prices in 2020, particularly for the region’s poorest,” Ahmadzai said.

“Adding to the conflict and economic turmoil, those in vulnerable nations have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. However, in some Middle Eastern countries with generally stable food markets, like the UAE, the impact may be less severe, particularly in those that have facilitated food supply on a war footing during the epidemic era, especially in 2020 and 2021.”




Syrian women helping out with Hathi Hayati volunteering group prepare meals to distribute to families in displacement camps for Iftar. (AFP/File Photo)

In general, the region is heavily reliant on cereal imports and is sensitive to global market disruptions. Ahmadzai pointed out that more than three-quarters of demand in most regional countries are met by imports.

“The Middle East region is one of the most vulnerable to a food crisis as a result of COVID-19, as well as other reasons, such as increased climate-change effects and economic unrest due to political instability,” he said.

“The lessons learned during the 2007-08 food crisis, which was marked by uncoordinated policy responses by countries, resulting in trade disruption and food price rises, could aid governments in the region in reversing some of the detrimental effects of the pandemic on agriculture and food security.”

Reforming trade and tax policies to encourage trade flows, as well as monitoring food prices, could also help keep food commerce open, while lowering the risk of supply shortages, he said.

“Understanding the implications of confinement measures on the agricultural industry and responding to protect the food supply chain requires close coordination and information exchange among countries in the region,” Ahmadzai said.




All countries, including those in the MENA region, should rely more on local food production and less on imports, experts have said. (AFP/File Photo)

“Given that most nations in the region rely heavily on food imports, the COVID-19 situation necessitates closer collaboration between the public and corporate sectors, as well as stronger civil society participation in decision-making.”

All countries, including those in the MENA region, should rely more on local food production and less on imports, he added. An inclusive growth model is needed, whereby all actors in the food supply chain play their part and address bottlenecks as quickly as possible.

“Another important strategy to deal with the pandemic threat is to promote healthy and nutritious meals. This is because those who suffer from obesity, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases are in the COVID-19 high-risk group.”

Mukhtar recommends the implementation of response and recovery plans that immediately tackle supply issues. “We at the FAO are focusing on transforming the agricultural food systems in our region and globally to make them inclusive, sustainable, efficient and resilient,” he said.

“We have to change our approach instead of focusing on food availability or supply. We can have a transformative regional agricultural food systems agenda where all countries come together and try to see the complementarities between each other.”




Ahmad Mukhtar, senior economist at FAO’s Regional Office for Near East and North Africa. (Supplied)

With 30 percent of regional food coming from Egypt alone, more investment in food security and greater deployment of agri-tech in production and distribution, as well as public-private sector partnerships, could make such a system both resilient and efficient.

“There are times when countries have money, but there is no food in the global market, which is a very dangerous proposition,” Rakesh Kumar Singh, program lead on crop diversity and genetics at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, told Arab News.

“It happened in the past in the 2007-2008 food crisis, when most of the exporting countries put an embargo on exporting food grains. This unpleasant scenario taught a big lesson to many countries, and many of them changed their food policy afterward.”

The pandemic left nations in a similar position, but thanks to buffer stocks of food and crops maturing at the time of the pandemic, the worst was avoided.

“This pandemic has compromised rural incomes due to a shrinkage in agricultural holdings and productivity,” Singh said. “As a result, many rural populations have lost employment.

Looking to the future, he said: “Scaling up social protection measures is crucial now to ensure the basic needs of vulnerable people are met, including those who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, and to avoid adding a food security crisis to the health crisis.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Shiite cleric shot, wounded in central Iran

Shiite cleric shot, wounded in central Iran
Updated 02 July 2022

Shiite cleric shot, wounded in central Iran

Shiite cleric shot, wounded in central Iran
  • Mohsen Akhavan was targeted in the city of Isfahan
  • He was returning home after leading the morning prayer when the attack occurred

TEHRAN: A Shiite cleric in central Iran was injured on Saturday morning after an assailant on a motorcycle shot at him, Iranian state media said.
Mohsen Akhavan, who holds the clerical rank of hojatoleslam, was targeted in the city of Isfahan, according to the website of state broadcaster IRIB.
Akhavan, who was the imam of a mosque in the city, was returning home after leading the morning prayer when the attack occurred, IRIB reported.
The report added that the cleric, who had earlier been working at the Isfahan Islamic seminary, was “not seriously injured” and was being treated in hospital.
In early April, a Sunni extremist of Uzbek origin stabbed two Shiite clerics to death and injured a third in the courtyard of the main shrine of the northeastern holy city of Mashhad.
Abdolatif Moradi, 21, was hanged on June 20 in the same city after being convicted over the attack, according to the judicial authority.
Moradi “was accused of moharebeh (’war against God’, in Persian) using a weapon to terrorize the population in the shrine and even outside it,” judicial authorities said.
The attack in Mashhad came days after two Sunni clerics were shot dead outside a seminary in the northern Iranian town of Gonbad-e Kavus.
The three suspects in that case, also Sunnis, were arrested in late April but were said to have “no connection with terrorist groups,” state media reported at the time.


Iranian-flagged tanker in Greece tugged to Piraeus port

Iranian-flagged tanker in Greece tugged to Piraeus port
Updated 02 July 2022

Iranian-flagged tanker in Greece tugged to Piraeus port

Iranian-flagged tanker in Greece tugged to Piraeus port
  • For over two months Iranian-flagged Lana has been anchored off the Greek island of Evia

ATHENS: An Iranian-flagged tanker seized by Greece in April, part of whose cargo was confiscated by the United States, was being towed to the port of Piraeus on Saturday, Greek coast guard officials said, after Greek authorities approved its release.
For over two months the Iranian-flagged Lana, formerly Pegas, has been anchored off the Greek island of Evia in a diplomatic impasse which has strained Athens’ relations with Tehran amid growing tensions between Iran and the United States.
“It left Karystos at 0630 am (0330 GMT) and is expected to reach Piraeus around 1000 pm,” one official said.
Greek authorities in April impounded Lana and its oil cargo with 19 Russian crew members on board near the coast of Evia, due to sanctions following a legal action by the United States.
The ship was later released due to complications regarding its ownership, but part of the Iranian oil cargo had already been transferred to another ship, Ice Energy, which was hired by the United States and is moored off Piraeus port.
The removal of oil from the Lana prompted Iranian forces last month to seize two Greek tankers in the Arabian Gulf and sail them back to Iran after Tehran warned it would take “punitive action” against Athens.
Following an appeal by an Iranian company on June 7, a Greek judicial panel overturned the initial court order that allowed the confiscation of the cargo on behalf of the United States.
That decision has cleared the way for Lana to retrieve the cargo that was transferred to Ice Energy.
Until last week however Lana, which still has engine problems, was being detained by another company due to debts owed for towing services. It was officially released after the amount owed was paid off, legal sources told Reuters.


Israeli strike on Syria wounds two civilians: ministry

Israeli strike on Syria wounds two civilians: ministry
Updated 02 July 2022

Israeli strike on Syria wounds two civilians: ministry

Israeli strike on Syria wounds two civilians: ministry
  • Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes in Syria since the 2011 civil war
  • Last month Israeli strikes on Damascus International Airport rendered its runways unusable for weeks

An Israeli strike on Syria’s western coast wounded two civilians on Saturday, the Syrian defense ministry said.
“The Israeli enemy carried out an air strike” at about 6:30 am near the town of Al-Hamidiyah, the ministry said in a statement, identifying the locations hit as poultry farms, without elaborating.
The strike was conducted from the Mediterranean Sea, west of Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, and “led to the injury of two civilians, including a woman,” the statement said.
Since the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes against its northern neighbor.
The raids have targeted Syrian government troops as well as allied Iran-backed forces and fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Last month Israeli strikes on Damascus International Airport rendered its runways unusable for weeks.
Besides the extensive damage caused to civilian and military runways, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the strikes had targeted nearby warehouses used as weapons depots by Iran and Hezbollah.
The Syrian war has claimed the lives of nearly half a million people and forced around half of the country’s pre-war population from their homes.


UAE residents feel tremors caused by 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Iran

UAE residents feel tremors caused by 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Iran
Updated 02 July 2022

UAE residents feel tremors caused by 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Iran

UAE residents feel tremors caused by 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Iran
  • Iran suffered several devastating earthquakes in recent years as major geological fault lines crisscross the country

DUBAI: UAE residents reported feeling tremors caused by 6.3 magnitude earthquake that jolted South Iran on Saturday at 3:24 am, according to the National Centre of Meteorology (NCM) on Saturday.

NCM added that the quake, which claimed the lives of five people in Iran, did not have any impact on the UAE.

State news agency IRNA said a magnitude 6.3 and 6.1 earthquakes followed the 6.1 quake that flattened the village of Sayeh Khosh near Iran’s Gulf coast, with more than a dozen aftershocks reported.

Iran has suffered several devastating earthquakes in recent years as major geological fault lines crisscross the country.


Houthi militia targets army positions in Taiz

Houthi militia targets army positions in Taiz
Updated 02 July 2022

Houthi militia targets army positions in Taiz

Houthi militia targets army positions in Taiz
  • The militia is also accused of targeting the army’s sites and residential neighborhoods using snipers

DUBAI: The Houthi militia has bombed army bases in Al-Dhabab area, west of Taiz, according to reports by state news agency Saba on Friday.

This comes as part of the militia’s daily violations of the UN truce, wrote Saba.

Yemen’s army has recorded a total of 2,778 violations by the Houthis since the beginning of the truce until Thursday.

The Taiz Military Axis said the violations ranged from artillery shelling, establishing fortifications and new sites, bringing in reinforcements, building roads, laying mines, conducting reconnaissance, and using drones.

The militia is also accused of targeting the army’s sites and residential neighborhoods using snipers.