NEW YORK CITY: Food security in the Near East and North Africa could be strengthened immeasurably if regional nations weaned themselves off their heavy reliance on foreign imports, Abdulhakim Elwaer, assistant director-general and regional representative for the Near East and North Africa at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, told Arab News.
Countries in the NENA region rely extensively on imported food items to feed their domestic populations. In fact, FAO predicts that the region will meet 63 percent of its caloric demand through imports by 2030, leaving it even more exposed to supply-chain disruptions and price fluctuations.
“This situation renders the region vulnerable to supply-side shocks caused by economic or natural factors, such as COVID-19 and inherent regional and country-level stressors such as protracted conflicts, political instability and climate change,” said Elwaer, speaking ahead of the 36th session of FAO’s Regional Conference for the Near East, NERC 36, which was held in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Feb. 7-8.
“The region is particularly weak when it comes to intra-regional trade. For example in 2019, only 15.4 percent of the Arab region’s food imports were from within the region,” said Elwaer, attributing this to “the lack of harmonization of regulatory systems, weak logistics infrastructure and trade facilitation mechanisms.”
“It is therefore imperative to recognize, internalize in national policies, and optimize the role of trade in food security in the NENA region. By bridging demand and supply, trade could play an important role in climate change adaptation and mitigating external shocks.”
The region’s excessive reliance on food imports has become entrenched through decades of crisis, instability and neglect of agriculture.
For example, Iraq imports almost 50 percent of its food needs. In the event of global food supply chain shocks or the collapse of the state budget owing to war or a drop in oil prices, the food system becomes vulnerable.
The imbalance is even more pronounced in the UAE, whose exposure to global food price fluctuations is borne out by the quantity of imported food as a percentage of the overall mix in 2019: 80-90.
From conflict and socio-economic upheaval to environmental degradation, the list of challenges facing food-producing communities throughout the NENA region seems to grow with every passing year.
With just 5 percent of the region’s land deemed arable, and freshwater supplies depleting rapidly, the result has been a steady flow of internal migration from the villages to the cities, further undermining domestic food production in favor of imports.
One knock-on effect has been a deteriorating standard of nutrition, with cheap, high-energy carbohydrates taking the place of more costly fresh fruits and vegetables on the dinner tables of deprived households, creating health problems associated with vitamin deficiencies.
Matters have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upset supply chains and destroyed livelihoods, raising the number of undernourished people in the region by a further 15 percent to 69 million in 2020.
“The recent trends in hunger and food insecurity suggest that it will be enormously difficult for the region to achieve, by 2030, UN Sustainable Development Goal number two: Zero hunger,” Elwaer said.
Indeed, the region was well behind on matters of food security long before the pandemic struck.
“The region had already been off-track in eliminating hunger and food insecurity because of pre-existing vulnerabilities and exposure to multiple shocks and stresses, such as climate change, water scarcity, conflicts and protracted crises, agriculture productivity and yield challenges, social inequalities and poverty, and, at present, rising food price,” Elwaer said.
NERC 36, held in a hybrid format under the theme “Recover and Restart: Innovations for better, greener and more resilient agri-food systems to achieve the sustainable development goals,” examined how the region might transform its agri-food systems to guarantee the public’s access to an affordable and nutritious diet.
Elwaer said this could be achieved through FAO’s Strategic Framework, the so-called Four Betters: “Better production, better nutrition, better environment and better life, leaving no one behind.”
The framework was endorsed by the region’s agricultural ministers at the conclusion of NERC 36, along with FAO’s priorities for the region, which focus on “generating employment opportunities for rural youth, promoting food security and healthy diets for all through trade, food safety, doing more to reduce food loss and waste, greening agricultural practices to ensure environmental sustainability.”
Regardless of what policies governments enact, however, Elwaer said that climate change remains the single greatest threat to regional agriculture and food systems — particularly as it exacerbates existing water shortages.
“Already having the lowest per-capita freshwater availability, global warming and desertification of arable lands are only going to exacerbate this threat,” he said.
“Increasing population and food demands, both the quantity and quality, coupled with rapid urbanization in our region, is yet another threat to our agri-food systems, as we may not be able to meet such demands from existing resources.”
Climate change has contributed to soil degradation by changing weather patterns, negatively impacting crop cycles, reducing yields and productivity.
“Climate change threatens our ability to ensure regional food security, eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development,” Elwaer said.
Various initiatives have been advanced by FAO on climate change mitigation and adaptation, while the agency’s regional network of trade experts has worked with governments to help shock-proof their supply chains.
“This, however, needs to be complemented by development-related efforts at all levels,” Elwaer said.
FAO officials believe inclusivity is the first pillar of any agri-food system transformation, particularly the empowerment of women. “Women are at the core of everything we advocate and work for,” Elwaer said.
“At FAO, we have a specific gender empowerment track that runs across all of the programs and projects. We have inbuilt gender markers to ensure that our interventions are supporting gender inclusion.
“In our region, we need to enhance the role of women in agri-food systems not only from a production perspective but also from a nutrition angle. In order to ensure healthy diets for all, we feel that a woman as head of the household is the most important stakeholder to ensure that the family opts toward healthy diets.”
Elwaer said that regional governments have been receptive to FAO’s recommendations, which could go some way toward fostering more regional trade, shock-proofing supply chains and reducing malnutrition.
“I believe that there is a genuine interest and focus by the governments in our region. We have seen that the governments have shown keen interest in ensuring food supplies and have been subsidizing the food sector heavily, though the merit of such subsidies is a different subject,” Elwaer said.
“For sure, the respective government knows best what it should do. I am here to support them in their goals and aspirations and provide technical assistance when and where needed.
“What we have been advocating, including through this regional conference, is to adopt the agri-food systems approach so that we cover all aspects with defined and agreed goals and targets.
“The holistic approach for agri-food systems risk management means adopting policies and pathways which map the risks and externalities facing the agri-food systems, particularly the inclusiveness, efficiency, resilience and sustainability of these systems, and then outline the mitigation and adaptation mechanisms in order to keep the transformation of agri-food systems on track and ensure continuity thereafter.”