Food security in the Middle East and North Africa present challenges

A traditional Marsh Arab canoe known as a Mashoof abandoned on the dry earth of the southern marshes of Iraq during a harsh summer drought caused by climate change and political instability (by Shutterstock)

The challenges around food security in MENA are not dissipating. Ahmad Abdel-Rahman explains what is happening in the region.

Food insecurity in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) has been an increasing challenge. Some 55 million people suffer from undernourishment out of a population of 456.7 million, in addition to protracted conflicts in some countries of the region. This, along with other factors, makes hunger a common problem. In 2020, the region's share of people suffering food insecurity was 20 per cent. This is very high given that the region makes up only 6 per cent of the world's population.

With protracted conflicts, scarcity of natural resources and frequent droughts facing many countries in the region, a large number of people, children in particular, are vulnerable to undernourishment, such as in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, where conflict prevails. The number of people who are undernourished reached 39 per cent and 23.7 per cent, respectively, in 2018. According to the latest available data on child underdevelopment from the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) (which is likely to manifest itself in stunting) between 2013 and 2016, it was found that in Yemen, about 46.4 per cent among children, and 38.2 per cent. As for emaciation, the highest rates were also recorded in Yemen and Sudan, at 16.4 per cent  and 16.3 per cent, respectively.A number of factors play a role in the increasing rates of food insecurity in MENA and they can be divided into internal and external factors.

internal factors

Internal factors are a result of the conditions and the nature of the region, including: water shortage, limited arable land and an increasing population:

1-Scarcity of water resources in exchange for population increase

Most Arab countries are experiencing a water crisis. The fact that the region is one of the most water-deficient regions in the world, with 13 countries out of 22, receiving less than 251 mm of precipitation per year, and approximately 362 million people suffer from water scarcity.

2-Limited land resources in exchange for population growth

The MENA region is poor in agricultural land, with desert occupying 84 per cent of its area. This leaves very little land for growing food. This is in addition to the expansion of urbanisation. By 2050, the region's total urban land area may have to increase by 50 per cent to accommodate the growing population, according to the WFP.

3- Low levels of agricultural productivity

Crop productivity in the region is also low, with the staple grain yield recording a yield of 2,024 kilos per hectare (kg/ha) almost half the world average of 4,074 kg/ha. This is due to limited economic resources and poor investment in modern technologies.

4-Changing Consumption Patterns

The change in consumption resulting from the rise in the standard of living and the rise in income affects food habits, leads to an increase in domestic demand in general and the demand for food in particular.

The external factors

External factors are the result of circumstances and factors beyond the control of the countries of the Middle East. Here is a brief description of each:

1-Climate change and its impact on food security in the Arab region

The expected increase in temperatures and the change in seasons has led to a decrease in the agricultural productivity of some crops. Rising temperatures also leads to increased evaporation and higher levels of water consumption, and the occurrence of broad social and economic impact such as population migration from border and coastal areas as well as changes in the labour market, such as moving from fishing and agriculture to other occupations.

2-High food prices as a result of the Russian-Ukrainian war

The region's food imports account for 50 per cent of its consumption, and reaches 90 per cent in some Gulf countries. This means higher food prices, and the volatility of international markets, according to the WFP.

Global fertilizer prices have also tripled since early 2020, as fertilizer exports from Belarus and Russia (two important fertilizer suppliers to Middle Eastern countries) have been disrupted by the Ukraine-Russian war. Some other exporting countries have also restricted supply through export taxes, embargoes and licensing requirements in measures designed to protect their farmers.

For these reasons, there is a great need for for solidarity among the countries of the Middle East to achieve food security and overcome the external challenges facing them. This includes facilitating trade and international supplies of food, enhancing production, and investing in agriculture that is able to withstand climate change.

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Saturday, 30 September 2023