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FAO official warns of Arab region’s overreliance on imported food

NEW YORK CITY: Food security in the Near East and North Africa could be immeasurably enhanced if nations in the region weaned off their heavy dependence on foreign imports, Abdulhakim Elwaer, Deputy Director General and Representative regional for the Near East and North Africa at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Arab News said.

Countries in the NENA region are largely dependent on imported food products to feed their domestic populations. In fact, the FAO predicts that the region will meet 63% of its caloric demand through imports by 2030, making it even more susceptible to supply chain disruptions and price fluctuations.

“This situation makes the region vulnerable to supply-side shocks caused by economic or natural factors, such as COVID-19 and inherent regional and national stressors such as protracted conflicts, political instability and the climate change,” Elwaer said, speaking ahead of the 36th session of the FAO Regional Conference for the Near East, NERC 36, held in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on February 7-8.

“The region is particularly weak when it comes to intra-regional trade. For example, in 2019, only 15.4% of the Arab region’s food imports came from within the region,” Elwaer said, attributing this to “lack of harmonization of regulatory systems, weak logistics infrastructure and trade facilitation mechanisms”.

“It is therefore imperative to recognise, internalize in national policies and optimize the role of trade in food security in the NENA region. By linking supply and demand, trade could play an important role in adapting to climate change and mitigating external shocks.

The region’s overreliance on food imports has been rooted in decades of crisis, instability and agricultural neglect.

For example, Iraq imports almost 50% of its food needs. In the event of shocks to the global food supply chain or a collapse of the state budget due to war or a drop in oil prices, the food system becomes vulnerable.

The imbalance is even more pronounced in the United Arab Emirates, whose exposure to global food price fluctuations is confirmed by the amount of imported food as a percentage of the global mix in 2019: 80-90.

From conflict and socio-economic upheaval to environmental degradation, the list of challenges faced by food-producing communities across the NENA region seems to be growing year by year.

With only 5 percent of the region’s land considered arable and freshwater supplies rapidly depleting, the result has been a steady stream of internal migration from villages to cities, further undermining national food production to the benefit of the poor. imports.

The NENA region’s overreliance on food imports has been rooted in decades of crisis, instability and neglect of agriculture. (AFP/file photo)

One of the ripple effects has been a deterioration in the level of nutrition, with cheap, energy-dense carbohydrates replacing more expensive fresh fruits and vegetables on the tables of poor households, creating health problems associated with vitamins.

The situation has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted supply chains and destroyed livelihoods, increasing the number of undernourished people in the region by another 15% to 69 million in 2020.

“Recent trends in hunger and food insecurity suggest that it will be extremely difficult for the region to achieve, by 2030, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal number two: zero hunger,” said Elwaer.

Indeed, the region was way behind in food security long before the pandemic hit.

INNUMBERS

* 15.4% – Proportion of the Arab region’s food imports from within the region in 2019.

* 63% – Estimated proportion of NENA calorie demand met by food imports by 2030.

“The region had already taken a wrong turn in ending hunger and food insecurity due to pre-existing vulnerabilities and exposure to multiple shocks and stresses, such as climate change, water scarcity, conflict and protracted crises, issues of agricultural productivity and yield, social inequality and poverty, and, currently, rising food prices,” Elwaer said.

NERC 36, held in a hybrid format under the theme “Recover and Reboot: Innovations for Better, Greener and More Resilient Agrifood Systems to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”, examined how the region could transform its agri-food systems to ensure public access to affordable and nutritious food.

Elwaer said this could be achieved through FAO’s strategic framework, the so-called four best: “Better production, better nutrition, better environment and better life, leaving no one behind”.

The framework was endorsed by the region’s ministers of agriculture at the end of NERC 36, along with FAO’s priorities for the region, which focus on “creating employment opportunities for rural youth, promoting food security and healthy diets for all through trade, food security, action more to reduce food loss and waste, greening agricultural practices to ensure environmental sustainability.

However, regardless of the policies adopted by governments, Elwaer said climate change remains the greatest threat to regional agriculture and food systems, particularly as it exacerbates existing water shortages.

Abdulhakim Elwaer, Deputy Director General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (Provided)

“Having already the lowest per capita freshwater availability, global warming and the desertification of arable land will only exacerbate this threat,” he said.

“The increase in population and demand for food, both in quantity and quality, coupled with the rapid urbanization of our region, poses another threat to our agrifood systems, as we may not be able to meet these demands from existing resources.”

Climate change has contributed to soil degradation by altering weather patterns, negatively impacting crop cycles, reducing yields and productivity.

“Climate change threatens our ability to achieve regional food security, eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development,” Elwaer said.

Various initiatives have been put forward by FAO on climate change mitigation and adaptation, while the agency’s regional network of trade experts has worked with governments to help protect their supply chains from shocks. .

“This, however, must be complemented by development-related efforts at all levels,” Elwaer said.

FAO officials believe that inclusiveness is the first pillar of any agrifood system transformation, especially the empowerment of women. “Women are at the heart of everything we stand for and work for,” Elwaer said.

Climate change remains the biggest threat to regional agriculture and food systems, especially as it exacerbates existing water shortages. (AFP/file photo)

“At FAO, we have a specific component on women’s empowerment that extends to all programs and projects. We have built-in gender markers to ensure our interventions support gender inclusion.

“In our region, we need to strengthen the role of women in agrifood systems not only from a production perspective but also from a nutrition perspective. In order to ensure healthy diets for all, we believe that a woman as the head of the family is the most important stakeholder in ensuring that the family opts for healthy diets.

Elwaer said regional governments have been receptive to FAO recommendations, which could help further foster regional trade, buffer supply chains from shocks and reduce malnutrition.

“I believe there is genuine interest and focus from governments in our region. We have seen that governments have shown a keen interest in ensuring food supply and have heavily subsidized the food sector, although the merit of those subsidies is another matter,” Elwaer said.

“Of course, the respective government knows best what to do. I am here to support them in their goals and aspirations and provide technical assistance when and where needed.

“What we have advocated, including through this regional conference, is to take the agri-food systems approach to cover all aspects with defined and agreed goals and targets.

“The holistic approach to agrifood systems risk management means adopting policies and pathways that map the risks and externalities facing agrifood systems, in particular inclusiveness, efficiency, resilience and sustainability. sustainability of these systems, then describe the mitigation and adaptation mechanisms in order to keep the transformation of agrifood systems on track and ensure continuity thereafter.

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Twitter: @EphremKossaify

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