Starving and Being Starved: Addressing Food Insecurity in Arab Populations

After years of civil war and outside intervention, Yemen continues to be widely recognized as having the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. A significant contributor to this status is the level of food insecurity and famine in the country, affecting more than half of its population of almost 30 million. Nearly a third of Yemeni families are missing significant components of a healthy diet, including fruits and vegetables, and millions of children require treatment for malnutrition.

More than half of the funding for Yemen’s humanitarian needs goes to food and agricultural and nutritional needs. However, food insecurity in Yemen is not only due to a lack of food in the country but it is also exacerbated by declining purchasing power. The Saudi-led blockade, soaring food costs, and high poverty are the largest contributors to hunger and malnutrition. People simply cannot afford food or the transportation that would take them to markets. The price of flour has increased by 133 percent since 2016 while the price of rice has skyrocketed by 164 percent. Yet even during an ongoing famine, aid convoys are harassed and delayed and ships bringing much needed fuel are blocked.

The depth of Yemen’s food crisis is emblematic of the many factors that lead to food insecurity. As the Yemen country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council put it, “Yemen is not starving. It is being starved.” Unfortunately, the people of Yemen are not alone. Approximately 9 percent of the world’s population is hungry. It used to be common wisdom that famines occurred due to lack of food. However, we now understand that high food insecurity is nearly entirely caused by humans, due to either purposeful or neglectful lack of food provision for certain populations and to delayed or inadequate responses of donors and humanitarian agencies.

More than 50 million hungry people live in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). COVID-19 has only made this crisis worse as states face cratering economies.

While hungry people exist in every country, the world’s hungry are not distributed evenly. More than 50 million hungry people live in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). COVID-19 has only made this crisis worse as states face cratering economies. Most of the Arab states in this region suffer from poor governance, rendering state policies especially lacking in times of crisis when a robust and competent response is needed. What are the contributors to food insecurity in the Arab states, and what should Arab leaders do to address this crisis?

Political and Economic Instability

Although each state has its own deeply complex and nuanced history, few Arab states are politically stable or sustainable in their current iterations. This is especially significant because nearly two-thirds of the region’s hungry are living in conflict-affected countries (primarily Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, and the Palestinian territories). The large migrant and refugee populations from these conflicts and weak states also report high food insecurity. Further, countries with fluctuating stability (like Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and Egypt) are seeing hunger increase in some populations. Inflation, devalued currencies, and higher food prices interact with forces like migrant labor, war, corruption, and, this past year, the devastation wrought by COVID-19. High food prices have reduced household purchasing ability across the region, accounting for much of the worst pockets of food insecurity. In the hardest-hit nations like Sudan, these economic factors combine with conflict, environmental factors such as drought and locusts, and displacement to lead to extremely vulnerable populations facing famine-like conditions.

Despite importing 36 million metric tons of wheat, the MENA region wastes nearly 16 million metric tons annually. Land management is exceptionally poor throughout the region for both growing and grazing practices. 

As seen with the port blast in Beirut in August 2020, government inaction—in this case, the neglect of explosive materials—can be almost as devastating as foreign attacks. The explosion destroyed not just much of the existing food at the port but access to the port itself, the largest in Lebanon and where nearly 80 percent of the nation’s goods, including food, enter the country. Food insecurity and poverty have increased in Lebanon as a result, as inflation for basic food items hits 109 percent. While the port explosion was an acute and immediate example of governmental malpractice, there are more potent but less discussed areas of weakness. There is a substantial amount of food and water waste in the Arab region, especially in the Gulf, which states have been slow to address. For example, despite importing 36 million metric tons of wheat, the MENA region wastes nearly 16 million metric tons annually. Land management is exceptionally poor throughout the region for both growing and grazing practices. States are also lacking in health promotion efforts to emphasize nutritious food production that would also reduce emissions. Many Arab states are seeing increased demand for meat, dairy, and packaged snack foods, which are among the least efficient foods to produce, package, and ship.

Lack of Domestic Production

Historically, agriculture was a significant economic and social component in the Arab region. There is even evidence that some of the first farms were developed in parts of the southern Levant thousands of years ago. Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq were particularly important food producers, but lack of investment, government mismanagement, and environmental factors have greatly reduced their production capacity. Today, agriculture contributes very little to the GDP of most Arab states and the region is the largest food importer in the world.

While there are many ways that weak states and ineffective policies have contributed to this need, and to the subsequent food insecurity in the region, there are also many factors outside of the state’s control that must be considered. Egypt, for example, is the largest importer of wheat in the world. Other significant imports include basic staples like corn, lentils, sugar, meat, and dairy products. While domestic production could be modernized, ultimately Egypt is experiencing high population growth and urbanization along with significant water shortages and minimal (and shrinking) arable land. This is the case throughout many of the Arab states.

Even the most effective policy cannot outrun reality. It is nearly impossible, with current trends, for the Arab region to become self-sufficient with regard to food. This is not necessarily a problem; food security is not wholly reliant on food sovereignty. The dependence on food imports is a permanent feature of these countries, and effective management and collaboration could ensure that imports provide equitable access to populations across the Arab states. Yet this reliance makes global shocks particularly painful and expensive, and when supply chains are interrupted or local economies are deficient, it is usually the most marginalized populations within a state that experience food insecurity first.

Environmental Factors and Climate Change

Climate change is not simply a looming threat to the Middle East and North Africa region where most Arab states are located; it is already a reality. Even if immediate measures to mitigate some of the projected risks were undertaken, little is being done to address the needs of today—and the needs are plentiful. Reduced rainfall and soil fertility curtail agricultural yields. Droughts, high temperatures, and natural disasters degrade and shrink arable land as well as increase post-harvest losses. Livestock will become more susceptible to pests and diseases. Families dependent on income from agriculture will see reduced purchasing power in an environment where global food prices are increasing. Climate-induced displacement will shock global food supply chains and strain markets in host communities. This confluence of factors is potent; by 2050, climate change will cut in half the progress being made in reducing the number of malnourished children in the region.

Aside from the direct effects of changes in the environment, climate change will have ripple effects throughout the region. These include domestic food shortages, spikes in global food prices, economic instability, and potentially increased conflict.

Aside from the direct effects of changes in the environment, climate change will have ripple effects throughout the region. These include domestic food shortages, spikes in global food prices, economic instability, and potentially increased conflict, which is another risk factor to food insecurity. As water supplies dry up, GDP could take a hit of up to 10 percent, and demand for an agricultural labor force may dip by up to 12 percent. This could lead to both state budget shortfalls and an increase in individual unemployment and poverty. Despite overwhelming evidence that climate change is perhaps the largest national security threat to the region, states are not adequately preparing for this impending decrease in domestic production of food nor are they working with today’s farmers to help modernize their farming practices, shift to new industries, or migrate from their homelands altogether if conditions become dire.

Food Security Tomorrow Requires Planning Today

A sustainable global food supply requires four components: sufficient production of quality foods, efficient distribution of a range of foods, equitable socioeconomic conditions, and an educated populace able to make informed food choices. While this is a daunting proposition considering the current state of food security in the Arab region, the multiple sources of weakness offer many opportunities for improvement. However, despite numerous reports that predict increasing food insecurity throughout the region, few Arab states have food security strategies in place. Many do not even provide dietary guidelines for their populations. Very few countries have taken steps to adapt agricultural practices to keep pace with population growth or climate change. The most food secure states in the region, the Gulf states, are primarily buoyed by the quality, safety, and affordability of food; but even these wealthy states perform poorly on measures of food availability and resilience.

While some level of self-sustainability in terms of food should be a larger priority for states, the region must also address its limitations. As is, agriculture from the region consumes nearly 85 percent of available water, and available renewable freshwater in the region is decreasing.

While some level of self-sustainability in terms of food should be a larger priority for states, the region must also address its limitations. As is, agriculture from the region consumes nearly 85 percent of available water, and available renewable freshwater in the region is decreasing. The primary imports of most states, grains, are water-intensive and cannot be grown domestically without further stressing water supplies. While retaining indigenous agricultural practices as much as possible, states can invest in more innovative and efficient food production practices. High-tech greenhouses, adaptive irrigation, rainfall recuperation, and shifting to growing less water-intensive crops are just some of the methods that each state, when assessing its own circumstances, could invest in appropriately. Increasing research and development for techniques that prepare states for shifts in demographics and climate change is urgently needed to ensure that food security does not increase in states that are relatively stable today.

Many of the Gulf states started to invest more heavily in food security once COVID-19 showed them how quickly the global supply chain could be disrupted. As an investor from the UAE told the Financial Times, “it doesn’t matter how many F-16s you buy, if you can’t keep food on the shelves, you have bigger problems than defending borders.” However, few of these rich states have had food shortages in recent memory; rather, it is the poor, and civilians in conflict environments, who bear much of the brunt of food crises. Indeed, conflict and state weakness are the most significant contributors to food insecurity in the Arab states today. The factors that are outside of any single state’s control, like water resources or the effects of climate change, are exacerbated when met with ineffective and myopic governance bodies, as are prevalent throughout the region.

Physical violence is usually considered the central component of conflict, but it is often the economic consequences of increased unemployment and poverty that lead to outcomes like food insecurity. Sometimes the blockade of food or food aid is used as a weapon, as has been seen in Yemen, Gaza, and Syria. To make the most significant dent in the region’s food insecurity, action must be taken on these protracted wars that are especially destructive to civilian populations. Humanitarian aid is a necessary salve for short-term support, but it does not address long-term food insecurity trends. As donor contributions fall short of commitments, especially as they are stretched to capacity with COVID-19, hungry populations are increasingly dependent on private investors. This is neither sustainable nor equitable.

The Arab region is not the most food insecure in the world. Sub-Saharan Africa reports the majority of the world’s undernourishment by far, followed by the Caribbean and parts of Asia. Nevertheless, some of the world’s most food insecure populations are in MENA and current trends point to a distressing future for the region. To reach Zero Hunger by 2030, one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, let alone ensure sustainable food production and import for decades to come, the leaders of the Arab states must prioritize supplying their populations with healthy, affordable, and sustainable food supplies. Compounding the regional crises of today with increasing and unmanaged food insecurity is creating a slow-growing emergency from which the region may not easily recover.

Yara M. Asi, PhD, is Non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yara and read her publications. click here