DUBAI: Progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in the Middle East and North Africa region has been hit hard by the global pandemic, and many of the achievements of the past decade have been reversed, according to a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
At least 132 million people have suffered chronic hunger since the start of the pandemic, FAO says, with up to 14 percent of food lost along the supply chain before it reaches consumers , and entire regions facing acute water stress.
“It’s not nice to see these numbers,” Ahmad Mukhtar, FAO senior economist for the Near East and North Africa, told Arab News, referring to the report’s findings.
âThese are alarming numbers for the MENA region because, for the past few years, the numbers have been almost stable and we have seen a decrease in this absolute number. But COVID-19 has stopped that and now it’s on the rise, so those numbers are serious. “
Areas where progress has stalled or reversed include farming systems and small-scale food production, which have borne the brunt of the pandemic, according to the report.
He adds that food price volatility has increased due to the pandemic and associated lockdowns, while progress remains low in maintaining plant and animal genetic diversity for food and agriculture.
âIn the Arab region, hunger was already on the rise before COVID-19, mainly due to climate change and conflict,â Mukhtar said.
âThe pandemic has increased the number of undernourished people. However, if we look at the past two decades, our region has almost doubled the number of undernourished people, reaching 69 million last year, an increase of 91%.
Mukhtar says conflict is the main obstacle to food security in the MENA region, followed by climate change and calamities such as COVID-19.
Coupled with chronic inequalities and poverty, these threats mean that the sustainable development goal of zero hunger by 2030 will be unachievable unless radical action is taken immediately.
“We now have to tackle over 800 million hungry people in seven years, which seems quite unlikely unless drastic measures are taken around the world,” he said.
âFor the region, there are challenges that pre-date the pandemic. COVID-19 has added to them. “
Hayatullah Ahmadzai, postdoctoral researcher at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai, said the pandemic has had a devastating impact on human health and the global economy, as several development indicators show.
âAgriculture and food production are not exempt,â Ahmadzai told Arab News. “On the production side, the pandemic could cause production to drop due to labor shortages and downsizing of farms.”
He said closures, a drop in international trade, a disruption in food manufacturing and an overall economic downturn are likely to have a substantial and lasting impact on food supply chains.
The disruption of food systems has resulted in reduced access to food, widening the gap between the goals of food security and zero hunger. Globally, according to the FAO report, moderate to severe food insecurity has steadily increased from 26.6 percent in 2019 to 30.4 percent in 2020.
Several countries in the Middle East were vulnerable to food insecurity due to harsh environments and limited natural resources for sustainable agricultural production, even before the pandemic.
âFood security has been further compromised by economic shocks and falling incomes linked to the pandemic epidemic and the collapse in oil prices in 2020, especially for the region’s poorest,â Ahmadzai said. .
âIn addition to conflict and economic turmoil, people in vulnerable countries have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. However, in some Middle Eastern countries with generally stable food markets, such as the United Arab Emirates, the impact may be less severe, especially in those which facilitated the food supply on a war footing during the period. epidemic, in particular in 2020 and 2021. “
In general, the region is highly dependent on grain imports and is sensitive to disruptions in the world market. Ahmadzai pointed out that more than three quarters of demand in most countries in the region is met by imports.
âThe Middle East region is one of the most vulnerable to a food crisis due to COVID-19, as well as other reasons, such as the increasing effects of climate change and economic turmoil due to the ‘political instability,’ he said.
âLessons learned from the 2007-08 food crisis, which was marked by uncoordinated policy responses by countries leading to trade disruptions and rising food prices, could help governments in the region to reverse some of the adverse effects of the pandemic on agriculture and food security. “
Reforming trade and fiscal policies to encourage trade flows, as well as monitoring food prices, could also help keep food trade open, while reducing the risk of supply shortages, he said. .
âUnderstanding the implications of containment measures on the agricultural industry and reacting to protect the food supply chain requires close coordination and information exchange between countries in the region,â Ahmadzai said.
âSince most countries in the region depend heavily on food imports, the COVID-19 situation requires closer collaboration between the public and business sectors, as well as stronger participation of civil society in decision making. “
All countries, including those in the MENA region, should depend more on local food production and less on imports, he added. An inclusive growth model is needed, in which all actors in the food supply chain play their part and resolve bottlenecks as quickly as possible.
âAnother important strategy to deal with the threat of a pandemic is to promote healthy and nutritious meals. Indeed, those who suffer from obesity, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases are part of the high risk group for COVID-19. “
Mukhtar recommends the implementation of response and recovery plans that immediately address supply issues. âWe at FAO are focused on transforming agricultural food systems in our region and around the world to make them inclusive, sustainable, efficient and resilient,â he said.
âWe need to change our approach instead of focusing on food availability or supply. We can have a regional agricultural food systems transformation agenda where all the countries come together and try to see complementarities between them. “
With 30 percent of the regional food coming only from Egypt, more investment in food security and greater deployment of agricultural technologies in production and distribution, as well as public-private partnerships, could make such a system both resilient and effective.
“There are times when countries have money, but there is no food in the world market, which is a very dangerous proposition,” Rakesh Kumar Singh, program manager told Arab News. on Crop Diversity and Genetics at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture.
âThis happened in the past during the food crisis of 2007-2008, when most exporting countries imposed an embargo on the export of food grains. This unpleasant scenario taught a great lesson to many countries, and many of them changed their food policies as a result. “
The pandemic has left nations in a similar position, but with buffer stocks of food and crops maturing around the time of the pandemic, the worst has been averted.
âThis pandemic has compromised rural incomes due to a decrease in farming and productivity,â Singh said. âAs a result, many rural people have lost their jobs.
Looking to the future, he said: âStrengthening social protection measures is crucial now to ensure that the basic needs of vulnerable people are met, including those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and for avoid adding a food security crisis to the health crisis.