Food insecurity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a growing challenge. Even before COVID-19, UN agencies estimated that more than 55 million of its population of 456.7 million was undernourished. The pandemic, protracted conflicts and other factors make hunger more common. In 2020, the MENA region’s share of the world’s acutely food insecure people was 20%, a disproportionate level compared to its share of 6% of the population.
The situation is worse where there are conflicts, such as Yemen and Syria. The UN estimates that the number of Yemenis affected by food insecurity reached 24 million – ~ 83% of the population – in 2021, with 16.2 million in need of emergency food. The war in Syria has had devastating consequences: more than 12 millions Syrians suffer from food insecurity, an increase of 4.5 million in 2020 alone.
In addition, half of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon were food insecure in 2020, up 20% from 2019. Refugee populations are particularly vulnerable: according to the Food Security Information Network, a quarter of the 0.7 million Syrians registered by the UN in Jordan are in immediate need.
Iraq has also seen an increase in food insecurity, caused by intermittent conflict and fluctuating global oil prices, with more than 4 million Iraqis in need of food today. humanitarian aid. In Lebanon, food insecurity is mainly due to hyperinflation.
In the Maghreb, Egypt and Djibouti, the number of food insecure people was stubbornly stable before the pandemic. Food insecurity has reportedly increased since then, with the recent increase in poverty in the region – the effects of the pandemic threaten to grow 16 million more people in extreme poverty.
We remain deeply concerned: the region faces structural challenges that make it particularly difficult to feed a growing population. The first is climate change; an increase in the frequency of extreme weather and higher temperatures affects local agriculture. Half of the MENA region’s population already lives in conditions of water stress; with a population expected to reach nearly 700 million in 2050, water availability per capita will be halved. 2020 also saw one of the worst Desert Locust outbreaks in more than 23 countries, including Yemen and Djibouti, affecting the livelihoods and food security of millions of people.
The second challenge facing our region is the rate of population growth itself, the highest in the world, and the growth of urban areas, with 66% of people expected to live in cities by 2030. Agricultural productivity does not keep pace with population growth, with the exception of Egypt, where productivity gains are above the world average.
The third challenge is food and nutrition. We are exceptionally dependent on food imports, especially wheat and other staple grains. Half of MENA’s food is imported, reaching 90% in Gulf cooperation countries. One-third of the calories people consume are government-subsidized wheat products. Between a quarter and a third of the region’s adult population is obese.
Our food system fails to support people’s health. Food provides calories but insufficient nutrition. As a result, people suffer from the double burden of malnutrition, both stunting and obesity.
Almost half of Yemeni children and a third in Djibouti are underweight for their age, with long-term consequences on their individual cognitive development and the economic trajectories of their country.
So what can we do to reverse these dire trends in food insecurity?
One intervention will be to reduce the risks associated with the heavy reliance of the MENA region on food imports, which means that countries must manage the economic risks associated with fluctuating food prices. Governments can reduce commodity price volatility, stabilize their budgets, and increase the predictability of the cost of food imports by using instruments designed for commodity markets and hedging.
Improving the efficiency of food importation and storage also helps manage risk. Egypt, for example, is modernizing its food import control framework, piloting a risk-based system with its National Food Safety Authority, where categories of foods with documented history of safety compliance sanitary ware are less likely to be delayed for sampling upon arrival at its border and more likely to be cleaned.
National agriculture and food can be engines of economic growth, creating jobs for new entrants to the labor market. The MENA region can regain its former leadership in agricultural innovation by investing in cutting-edge practices and technologies adapted to climate change, such as hydroponics, conservation agriculture and the safe use of treated water. .
It is also well positioned to use digital technology in the agrifood sector and develop new financial models to leverage private investments in agriculture if public spending and other related policies are reviewed by governments. Development interventions are needed to help farmers adopt more productive and sustainable systems resistant to drought, floods and other risks.
There is plenty of room for maneuver to improve the quality of agricultural jobs and make the regional agrifood sector more attractive. We see it in Morocco, with training in entrepreneurship and climate-smart practices. In Yemen, the World Bank is funding projects that provide immediate support through cash-for-work programs and the provision of nutritious food, but also build long-term resilience by restoring agricultural production and value chains.
Social protection measures, such as safety nets and food aid programs for the most vulnerable, remain essential to ensure that food is affordable, especially in emergencies.
We cannot – and must not – fail to see the current crisis caused by the pandemic as a golden opportunity to build stronger, more inclusive systems that provide healthy food and better jobs and make more sustainable use of resources. scarce natural resources in the MENA region.
* Ayat Soliman is the Regional Director of the World Bank Group Sustainable Development Department for the Middle East and North Africa region.
First appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat, via World Bank