Hunger and malnutrition have reached critical levels in the Arab region as access to basic foods has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, according to a United Nations report released. Produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the 2022 Near East and North Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition: Trade as an Enabler for Food Security and Nutrition, examines the state of regional food security, providing analysis and recommendations on how to mitigate the situation.
The report reveals that an estimated 53.9 million people suffered from severe food insecurity in the Arab region in 2021, accounting for a 55 percent increase since 2010. This is also an increase of 5 million people from the previous year. Moderate or severe food insecurity has also continued its upward trend, affecting an estimated 154.3 million people in 2021, an increase of 11.6 million people over the previous year, the report also warned.
In addition, it stated that more than half the population in the Arab States, or 162.7 million people, could not afford a healthy diet in 2020. The cost of a healthy diet in the Arab region has been increasing each year since 2017, reaching $3.47 per person per day in 2020.
The Arab region continues to suffer from multiple forms of malnutrition. While the prevalence of stunting (1) of 20.5 percent and affecting one out of every five children under 5 years of age was lower than the global average, the report indicates that the regional indicators for wasting (2), 7.8 percent, is higher than the global average of 6.7 percent. The prevalence of overweight among children under 5 years of age has shown a steady increase since 2000 and reached 10.7 percent in 2020.
In addition, the report highlights that the latest available estimates show that 28.8 percent of the adult population (18 years and above) of the Arab region was obese, which is more than double the global average.
While the Arab region was already off-track from achieving zero hunger and nutrition-related Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have exacerbated the situation by creating disruptions in supply chains and inflating the prices of grains, fertilizers, and energy. Since the region depends heavily on imported food to meet its food security requirements, these crises have affected Arab countries disproportionately and aggravated food insecurity and malnutrition in the region.
In addition to these global events, climate change, conflicts, and structural issues such as poverty and inequality add to the burden of achieving food security and improved nutrition in the region. Therefore, the UN partners have concluded that the Arab region is unlikely to achieve zero hunger (SDG 2) by 2030.
The Overview highlights that trade is an essential enabler to ensure all four dimensions of food security and nutrition (availability, access, utilization, and stability) by increasing the quantity and variety of food and decreasing its price for net-food importing countries. However, most of the countries in the region have not mainstreamed trade into food security policies; thus, relevant policies must be redesigned accordingly and agrifood systems in the area must be transformed to make them more efficient, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable.
The report recommends that policymakers should focus on policies facilitating food trade such as reducing trade barriers, developing new free trade areas, promoting digital technologies, reducing non-tariff barriers, harmonizing regulatory practices, strengthening governance, and promoting collaboration and coherence among countries and the global community.
International trade is not only vital for the availability of food, but it plays a major role in enhancing technology through knowledge spillovers that can increase productivity, improve employment opportunities and raise incomes, highlights the report.
The Overview also calls on Arab countries to leverage intra-regional trade and rely more on each other’s capacities as regional trade helps reduce food shortages during normal agricultural production cycles and provides an important mechanism to address production shortfalls or supply chain disruptions caused by adverse and unforeseeable global events.
In this United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition 2016–2025, completing the ambitious development agenda requires accelerated action to end hunger and eliminate malnutrition in all its forms by ensuring that sufficient quantities of safe, nutritious, and affordable foods are available to all. Therefore, the Arab region must improve agrifood systems to deliver food security and better nutrition for all, to be economically sustainable, to be inclusive, and to have a positive impact on the climate and the environment.