The Arab region is facing unprecedented challenges in its efforts to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition, and ensure that everyone has access to adequate and affordable healthy diets.
This is due to multiple challenges and factors beyond the control of Arab states. The consequences of these challenges, however, widely burden their populations and their governments to ensure the minimum level of food security. Many states provide subsidies and other forms of support, but these are becoming a challenge due to tight fiscal space.
In the near future, it does not seem that there will be a significant improvement in the current situation.
Recent crises — such as the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war, COVID-19 and the ongoing negative impacts of climate change — have stressed the agrifood systems and disrupted food supply chains around the world, including in the Arab region.
In fact, the Middle East and North Africa is one of the most affected regions, mainly due to its heavy reliance on food imports from global markets and Black Sea nations.
According to a joint UN Report, "2022 Near East and North Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition," recently published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Arab region accounted for 7.6 percent of the world's total agricultural imports in 2020.
Countries in the Middle East and North Africa are among the world's largest importers of grains, with more than 50 percent of their populations’ caloric requirements there met through food imports.
In the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen, more than 80 percent of total calorie availability comes from imports.
The UN report highlights the significant crisis the region is facing due to this situation, with the number of people there suffering from malnutrition reaching 54.3 million — or 12.2 percent of the total population — in 2021.
This represents a 55 percent increase over the figures of 2010; that is, before the region was hit by major shocks resulting from a wave of conflicts and popular uprisings.
The number of people suffering from severe food insecurity in 2021 is estimated at 53.9 million, an increase of 5 million from the previous year.
Rates of moderate or severe food insecurity also continued to rise, negatively affecting an estimated 154.3 million people in 2021, and an increase of 11.6 million people compared to 2020.
The number of people suffering from food insecurity has been steadily increasing since 2014, with 34.7 percent of the total MENA population suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity in 2021. More than half the Arab population could not afford a healthy diet.
At first glance, these figures suggest the Arab region is unlikely to eliminate hunger — the UN’s second Sustainable Development Goal 2 — by 2030, in addition to the other challenges of climate change, armed conflicts, natural disasters and structural problems.
However, despite these alarming figures, there is still a chance to overcome these crises and challenges.
Food and nutrition goals can be achieved by bringing about a transformation in the food and agri-systems of the region's countries to make them more inclusive, sustainable and resilient. Some countries in the region have begun to realize this and are striving to invest in various sustainable agricultural and rural development strategies.
The first step toward this change is to enhance and disseminate knowledge and technology, as well as finance the necessary frameworks. Moreover, enhancing integration between countries and intra-regional trade would reduce the food import bill while optimally utilizing local resources.
This requires strategic investment in all areas, along with a high-level political will and the development of clear and tested policies.
Our attempt to reduce the food import bill should not neglect the importance of trade in achieving the four dimensions of food and nutrition security: availability, access, utilization and stability.
Trade can increase the quantity and diversity of food and reduce its prices in food-importing countries. International trade, therefore, is essential for diverse and healthy food systems in the Arab region.
Abdulhakim ELWAER is the FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa.
The Arab region is facing unprecedented challenges in its efforts to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition, and ensure that everyone has access to adequate and affordable healthy diets. This is due to multiple challenges and factors beyond the control of Arab states. The consequences of these challenges, however, widely burden their populations and their governments to ensure the minimum...