By Baher Kamal
In Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, around half the population, some 40 million people, need humanitarian assistance.
Those were some of the conclusions of the World Report on Food Policy, 2017, prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and presented this Wednesday 24 at a meeting of international experts held in Cairo.
Organized by IFPRI and the Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences of the University of Cairo, under the theme “Rapid urbanization threatens food security in Egypt”, the expert forum analyzed the situation in that country, where “the combination of a high growth of the local population and that of refugees and migrants puts greater pressure on an already vulnerable food system, ”explained the director general of the institute, Shenggen Fan.
Rapid population growth and the consequent increase in food consumption are likely to increase dependence on food imports in the countries of that region, explained economist Clemens Breisinger, a researcher at IFPRI in Cairo, in an interview with IPS.
Countries with a considerable agricultural sector, such as Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia, generally do not have large food imports, between 10 and 20 percent, that is, that is the proportion of imported products in consumption.
Dependence on imported food
But other countries in the region depend much more on imported food, since it exceeds 30 percent of consumption; in Iraq, Mauritania, Oman and Yemen, they represent 50 percent, and in Gulf countries, such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, they amount to 70 percent, Breisinger explained.
The researcher believes that there is room to increase agricultural production in the region, but that land and water resources are limited. Furthermore, climate change will reduce harvests and rapidly growing cities will expand on agricultural land, often fertile.
"To guarantee food security in the future, the countries of the region should prepare to import more food from international markets in the near future," he warned.
Regarding the availability of water, Breisinger told IPS that a much more severe shortage is projected in the region, but that there are political and technical alternatives to avoid a disaster.
The problems to guarantee food security exert a greater pressure on the available water sources, above the greater demand generated by the increase in the population, he explained. Projections for 2050 show that renewable water resources will decline by 25 percent in the world.
“These pressures vary enormously from one region of the world to another. In the Middle East and North Africa, a further decrease, from 778 to 506 cubic meters per inhabitant per year, will severely limit the means of making a living and economic development ”, warned Breisinger.
According to the specialist, possible solutions to mitigate the impact of climate change on water scarcity include: increasing the efficient use of water and investing in alternative sources to achieve it.
The greatest efficiency can be achieved with funds to improve irrigation schemes and wastewater reuse, and in terms of investments, these can be used for technologies to desalinate, to harvest water and to extract it from the subsoil, he explained.
The proportion of people living in cities is projected to exceed those living in rural settings in countries in the region by 2030, with the notable exception of Egypt, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, Breisinger added.
“With the combination of population growth and higher incomes, urbanization could increase the demand for processed foods. This trend offers the opportunity to transform the region's economy through agribusiness in order to create employment, improve food security and reduce poverty, ”he explained.
The double burden of malnutrition
When asked about “the double burden of malnutrition” in the Middle East and North Africa, whether due to excess or lack of food, Breisinger observed that it is prevalent in middle-income countries, and especially in that region.
“Egypt has relatively more pronounced examples of a double burden of malnutrition than other developing countries. For example, almost one in three Egyptian children under the age of five is chronically malnourished, while 78 percent of non-pregnant married women aged 15 to 49 are overweight, ”he explained.
The researcher believes that addressing these problems, through reforms to current policies and programs, constitutes a fundamental contribution to the improvement of economic and social development.
Reforms to the economic and social safety net in Egypt
Egypt has dragged on many of the current economic problems for decades.
"To address these long-standing problems, such as slow progress in economic diversification and persistent high unemployment and poverty, Egypt recently embarked on a historic process of economic reforms," Breisinger said.
Many reforms saw the light of day in 2016, such as the imposition of a value added tax (in August), the floating of the Egyptian pound (in November) and further reductions in energy subsidies (also in November, following the partial elimination of the benefit in 2014), he detailed.
The Egyptian government estimates that the population is growing 2.4 percent, twice the average for other developing countries. Most of that growth is concentrated in cities, and the greater Cairo area is forecast to have half a million more people by the end of this year, more than any other city in the world.
In addition, the armed conflicts and drought that characterize the region exacerbate the problems caused by the large increase in population and urbanization, by adding refugees and displaced people to some of the most vulnerable populations, the report said.
To meet the challenge of feeding these rapidly expanding populations, the IFPRI Director General stressed the importance of connecting rural and urban areas.
"Improving the links between rural and urban environments can reduce hunger and malnutrition and allow growth and prosperity in both spaces," he explained.
"Connecting farmers with cities offers the first large markets where to sell higher value crops, and the urban population gives them the possibility of having healthier and more nutritious food," he said.
IFPRI was created in 1975 to identify and analyze national and international strategies and policies to meet the food needs of the developing world, with a particular emphasis on low-income countries and those of the poorest groups.
The institute is a member of the CGIAR, a global association dedicated to agricultural research for development.
Translated by Verónica Firme