Ensuring food security for all is an ambitious and complex endeavour that requires considering its four dimensions: food availability, access, utilization and stability. These were agreed upon during the World Food Summit in 1996 and reaffirmed in the World Summit on Food Security in 2009; “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO, 1996 and 2009).
Food security is a challenge in the Arab region that was further underscored during the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis deepened food security concerns and increased uncertainty faced by policymakers. The persistent regional dilemma can be summarized as follows: To what extent should Arab countries produce more food versus allowing heavier dependency on imports, and to what extent should the region integrate medium- to long-term risks, as opposed to only short-term ones? In other words, how can countries strike the right balance between preserving the sustainability of scarce natural resources, on the one hand, and remaining exposed to global price volatilities, on the other.
Given the structural deficits in food production in the region, an additional question relates to the mechanisms that should be put in place to mitigate risks associated with food import dependency. The disruptions created by the pandemic point to the necessity of actions beyond those of governments. These include measures that need to be taken by other stakeholders, notably businesses and civil society, which could be pushed to be more flexible and agile in their responses, and assume further social and health responsibilities.
In addressing this challenge, the key findings and recommendations include:
Pre COVID-19, the region was plagued by high levels of food insecurity, and the prevalence of both undernourishment and obesity: 116 million people felt food insecure, 43 million were undernourished and 115 million were obese. There have been major differences among subregions and country categories. Obesity is more prevalent in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and middle-income countries, while undernourishment and food insecurity are more of an issue in the least developed countries (LDCs) and Countries in Conflict (CiCs). As a whole, the region is underperforming in all key food security dimensions:
In food availability, wheat yields are insufficient (less than 50 per cent of potential), and expenditure in agriculture is low (less than 0.5 per cent), among other key dimensions;
In food access, the region is challenged by high and increasing poverty (29 per cent); high unemployment, particularly among women and youth at 20 per cent and 26.5 per cent, respectively; inflation reaching over 45 per cent in the LDCs; and high household expenditure on food of 31 per cent;
Food utilization and access to basic drinking water and sanitation services are low in the LDCs at 40 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively, and there are high rates of child stunting (22 per cent) and wasting (8.2 per cent) as well as anaemia among women of reproductive age (35.5 per cent);
Political instability has increased and challenges food stability, while climate change and poor infrastructure in general hinder food production and supply.
There is an urgent need to address food security gaps and challenges. The region will need to act on key issues at the regional and national levels. These will include enhancing trade of agriculture products to secure imports, facilitating exports and fostering inter-regional trade; re-examining the use of food subsidies, particularly for wheat and sugar in view of their effectiveness in delivering on food security and nutrition, and promoting value addition in agricultural products; making value chains more efficient and resilient; and ensuring greater cross-sectoral cooperation and coordination to address the challenges of the region’s food systems, from production to consumption. Governments will need to assess the effectiveness of their social safety net programmes in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic to better cover the most vulnerable people, and draw lessons from the pandemic in terms of critical bottlenecks in the food value chain and access to inputs and to markets. There is a critical need to improve data collection, availability and dissemination to ensure evidence-based policymaking.
The occurrence and rapid spread of COVID-19 worldwide forced countries to enact restrictive measures that reduced productive activities. This negatively affected food security and the food sector in general. Certain measures directly affected food availability, such as restrictions on exports of certain food items. The impacts of other measures were indirect, such as border closures, early movement restrictions including on farm labour, and the closure or remote working of key components of the economy such as restaurants, schools, offices and others. While workers from various sectors worked from home, the vital food sector needed to continue working on the ground. Urgent protective measures were required on farms, in food-processing industries, and for wholesalers and retailers. The hoarding of food by households in the early days of the pandemic put a strain on supermarkets and other retailers of food and essential items.
The pandemic hit the Arab region at a time of already critical and challenging socio-political, economic and food security constraints, thereby revealing weaknesses in regional food value chains. The greatest impact on food accessibility, however, arose from increased unemployment and poverty. Regional unemployment is projected to reach 15 per cent by 2022 while poverty rates are also expected to increase, notably in conflict-affect countries to more than 50 per cent of the population.
With the impacts still unfolding, uncertainty continues to be high. Countries need to assess food security and the food sector at the national and local levels to identify needed actions. They also need to strengthen the resilience of the sector while considering the critical role of coordination and cooperation in national actions.
There are several avenues to enhance the resilience of supply chains to pandemics and other crises, including through the diversification of procurement channels for key food commodities and the adoption of trade facilitation mechanisms. Actions also include increasing food storage capacity at the national and subnational levels. Regional collaboration is critical for enhancing the movement of food across borders, along with the movement of agricultural workers, and for food stocks (notably for wheat and cereals) to better manage risks. Existing regional vulnerabilities that already hinder the ability to respond to systemic shocks have been further exacerbated by the pandemic.
Scarce water and land resources suffer from degradation, overconsumption, biodiversity loss, pollution and harsh climatic conditions. Agricultural production is limited. Fifty-six per cent of farmland depends on erratic rainfall, pressuring farms to overexploit groundwater resources for irrigation;
Socioeconomic challenges include an expected increase in population by 53 per cent, which will require feeding 670 million people by 2050. The agricultural sector remains an important source of revenue in the region although agricultural gross domestic product (GDP) at the regional level decreased by about 16 per cent;
Food import dependency is high since Arab countries import 50 per cent of calories consumed. Regional dependency on food imports is only expected to rise. Of the total wheat consumed in the region, 63 per cent is imported, with GCC countries importing more than 90 per cent of their needs. The region spends around $110 billion on food imports annually, about 4 per cent of GDP;
Protracted conflicts are leading to higher levels of undernourishment. Containment measures to combat COVID-19 affect livelihoods particularly among the poor, refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) who have to rely on humanitarian aid for survival.
To build back better, the region will need to focus on the sustainable use of resources, inclusive societies and sustainable economies along with dedicated efforts around peacebuilding and increased humanitarian aid to ease the suffering of refugees and IDPs. This is perhaps the most important lesson emerging from the pandemic and its multiple crises. Inclusive, gender-responsive economic and social policies need to put human lives at the heart of response and recovery plans. Facilitating access to financing will be essential in addition to investment in the food sector, including, among other priorities, to reduce food losses and waste, and transform patterns of consumption. Promoting green and digital technologies that require limited investments and can be easily adopted in rural communities and by smallholder farmers will be important. For a comprehensive response, governments need to lead the coordination of and support diverse stakeholders, including the private sector, academia and research institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and rural communities. At the regional level, operationalizing the Arab food security fund will be critical to providing relief during food shortages or emergencies, and ensuring a regional rapid response. Support from different Arab and global development funds is needed in that regard.
Lebanon and Yemen demonstrate the complex challenges of food security that have deepened during the pandemic. Lebanon has struggled with sharp foreign currency shortfalls followed by a strong devaluation, destroyed port infrastructure and the impact of COVID-19 restrictive measures. Compared to the 2019 inflation rate of 2.9 per cent, inflation in Lebanon is expected to reach an annual average of over 50 per cent in 2020. The loss of purchasing power has rendered 40 per cent of Lebanese households unable to satisfy their food requirements and other basic necessities, consequently jeopardizing their food security. This report examines the change in caloric availability for certain commodities, the agricultural trade balance and self-sufficiency ratios under two different exchange rates, 1,508 Lebanese pounds (LBP) as the official rate in banks, and LBP 3,900 as the official rate for withdrawing local dollars.
In Yemen, the high level of food insecurity is a result of the deteriorating sociopolitical situation since 2004, exacerbated by armed conflicts that started in 2015. Yemen imports more than 90 per cent of its food, yet conflicts and lately the pandemic have slowed port operations. As a result, 80 per cent of the population is in a precarious food security situation. Inflation has worsened especially for cereals as prices have increased between 11 per cent for rice and 20 per cent for wheat. Fuel product prices have escalated by more than 20 per cent, hampering water-pumping operations for irrigating crops. With the pandemic affecting Gulf countries’ economies, remittances to Yemen have declined by more than 70 per cent. In tandem with the rise in unemployment and unpaid or diminished salaries, this has put a further 17 million to 19 million people at risk of famine and diseases, including cholera and COVID-19.
Projections on food supply and demand by 2030 show that food supply will be slightly lower in an environment of already high food insecurity. Key areas to address include moving beyond a focus on food availability and supporting sustainable economic development as key to enhancing both food access and food security. A stable regional and global socio-political and economic environment could help avert trade restrictions regardless of their causes, including as a result of the pandemic, and ensure that regional and global supply chains are resilient. The region will have to re-emphasize the necessity of regional joint investments and partnerships in countries with relatively high production potential through the adoption and implementation of comprehensive agricultural and trade policies. The region could also benefit from the integration of agriculture in preferential trading agreements to increase food security, employment and exports.
Building resilience to rising food insecurity to allow countries and communities to withstand and recover from shocks that affect food security, be they natural (floods, droughts, climate change), human-made (conflicts, social unrest, trade restriction), market-based (market volatility, price hikes) or health-related (COVID-19) has to become an urgent policy objective to allow countries to meet their commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. This will entail preparing for, protecting against, enhancing the response to, and recovering from short-, medium- and long-term shocks.
Addressing food security in the region requires vision, and governance mechanisms that enhance the agility, robustness and functioning of food systems for all. This objective should be embraced by countries and all actors at the regional, subregional, national and community levels. They should aim to ensure that resilience to shocks starts with mitigating regional vulnerabilities through careful assessments followed by prevention programmes to identify early signs of shocks and guide quick action to minimize impacts on food security.
In the short to medium terms, governments are expected to prioritize addressing macroeconomic difficulties such as currency devaluation, poverty and unemployment, insufficient social safety nets for the poor and food subsidies, while also acting on natural resource constraints by investing heavily in technological innovations.
In the medium to long term, the private sector needs to focus on food processing to aid the development of a profitable, sustainable and inclusive regional food industry, and advocate for further trade liberalization. Developing a monitoring system for food prices, food production, export potentials and market access will further assist the region in enhancing food security.
Among the key issues to address urgently are to:
Ensure that food is available and accessible by populations, which implies that food supply chains are working as intended, and that the necessary infrastructure is in place together with appropriate incentives to ensure food reaches everywhere;
Promote nutrition programmes to avoid under- and overnutrition through well-balanced diets while also avoiding excessive food loss and waste, which could further worsen food insecurity;
Leverage existing resources at the country and community levels to address rising problems, and distribute and reallocate limited resources.