Ifpri’s recently-published 2016 Global Food Policy Report unsurprisingly identified the ongoing conflicts in countries such as Syria and Yemen, and the resulting humanitarian crises, as the Middle East’s main source of food insecurity. But it also noted that food policy in richer Arab countries needed reform, particularly to combat malnutrition and obesity.
Growing costs of inaction
“The outlook for the Arab region for 2016 is not much improved, particularly if conflict persists. However, there is hope that the mounting evidence of the costs of inaction will sway decision-makers to support policy reforms to improve governance, fight corruption, and increase the competitiveness of Arab economies,” the report’s authors wrote.
“Outside of conflict areas, following the model of the emerging success in Egypt, governments should focus on ending harmful subsidies and strengthening safety nets in order to improve nutrition for the truly poor and food insecure, including addressing the double burden of malnutrition,” they added.
The report said the region needs good data and information to allow better decision-making, and effective tools and demonstrable solutions may even help shorten conflicts. Ifpri itself, in conjunction with partners, operates the Arab Spatial tool, designed to help policy-makers analyse food and nutrition security across the Middle East and North Africa.
Beyond resolving regional conflicts, the Ifpri report identified malnutrition as a key area that needed attention: “Nutrition interventions should focus on child stunting, obesity and the combination of both—the so-called ‘double burden’ of malnutrition. Stunting levels in many Arab countries are significantly higher than per capita income levels would suggest, with more than 20% of children too short for their age in 10 Arab countries.”
The report noted that countries including Kuwait, Egypt and Syria have seen falling reduction rates in child stunting, meaning improvements are slowing down rather than accelerating. Obesity rates across the region are also very high, with around 45% of all adults classed as overweight.
In terms of macro food policy, the report said most countries in the region will remain dependent on food imports, despite attempts to become self-sufficient.
“While most Arab countries spend less than 20% of their foreign exchange earnings on food imports…, any discussion of self-sufficiency needs to explore the feasibility and true cost of this idea, which is likely to be high. A more realistic and beneficial strategy for reducing food insecurity may be to further improve trade and trade infrastructure, including storage,” the report stated.
“In several countries, domestic agriculture, including rain-fed agriculture, has potential to increase its contribution to regional food security. However, given regional water scarcity, any efforts to increase agricultural production or productivity will need to address sustainability issues for food production systems, as laid out in the [UN’s Sustainable Development Goals],” they added.