The Arab region must prioritize food security

Hafed Al-Ghwell

In the face of growing global food insecurity, a transformative shift in our approach to food systems is urgently needed. We are at a crossroads, where the path we choose today will significantly affect our collective future.
Current food systems, which are characterized by inefficiencies and unsustainable practices, contribute to environmental degradation, climate change, and widening gaps in food security. However, recent analyses suggest the global transformation of these systems could unlock economic benefits worth trillions of dollars each year, while simultaneously addressing these critical issues.
The transformation of food systems in the Arab region is quickly emerging as a pivotal strategy amid the confluence of global challenges spanning health, poverty, inequality, climate change, and the loss of biodiversity.
This transformation, which will be integral to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, demands a comprehensive reimagining of food systems to ensure that they are resilient, equitable, sustainable and deeply integrated within national and global frameworks.
The enormity of this ambition reflects the critical role food systems play in addressing some of the world’s most pressing issues, and underscores the need for a broad range of actions, practices, and policies.
The urgent need for such a transformation is particularly acute in the Middle East and North Africa, an expansive region that is warming at a rate nearly double the global average. Unmitigated, this environmental shift will continue to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities, especially in terms of livability and agricultural sustainability, with the problems compounded by socioeconomic ills such as high inflation, elevated energy prices, and geopolitical tremors.
Additionally, the region’s history of high migration and displacement, rooted in conflict and limited economic opportunities, is also likely to intensify as a result of the intertwined challenges of climate change and escalating food insecurity.
Food security, or the lack thereof, stands out as a principal driver of conflict in the Arab region. Historically, macro and household-level food security have materially influenced the likelihood of prolonged unrest, ultimately leading to major upheavals.
In addition, the region is not insulated from spikes in global food prices; indeed its exposure is high, as was evident in 2008 and 2011, when growing food insecurities in countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Yemen contributed to major social agitations and political upheavals.
The risk of continuing food-related eruptions in the region looms large, given rapidly expanding populations, limited agricultural potential, water scarcity, and the compounding effects of a planet on the verge of runaway global warming.
To address the food security challenges in the Arab region effectively, a multifaceted approach is required that combines immediate interventions with long-term resilience-building measures.
In stark contrast to the bleak outcomes from solely profit-driven food systems, a complete reformation has the potential to yield substantial socioeconomic benefits; this is not only a matter of the region’s survival but also its prosperity.
Thus, a key objective in the Herculean task governments in the Arab region face is to ensure future food systems no longer destroy more value than they create.
After all, the environmental, social and health costs of current agri-food systems is estimated to be more than $10 trillion, which is a serious indictment of the practices, inaction and failures that gave rise to this status quo.
Left unchecked, by 2050, the planet’s current food systems will leave more than half-a-billion people underweight, while simultaneously exacerbating the obesity crisis by a horrifying 70 percent. Worse still, doing nothing will guarantee further increases in the agriculture sector’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, escalating the effects of climate change that, paradoxically, make our food systems even more vulnerable.
A do-nothing stance will leave us barreling toward a precipice of enormous economic and human costs, because current food production and patterns of consumption are grossly unsustainable. Not only will inaction erase potential “gains” from climate-related transitions and transformations, it will erode natural resources and increase food insecurity in the world’s most vulnerable regions.
It is a path that borrows from the future to satisfy the present, leaving a ballooning deficit for coming generations to face with progressively fewer tools to manage food-related and other crises.
Yet, an alternative exists: a Food System Transformation approach that promises not only to mitigate the challenges but also reverse them. Underpinning this transformative approach is the integration of sustainable practices across the entire food value chain, from production to consumption.
This includes the adoption of agricultural methods that minimize environmental impact, such as reduced use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the embracing of technological innovations that can enhance efficiency and reduce waste.
Furthermore, it entails a significant dietary shift toward predominantly plant-based diets, which research has shown could account for most of the health and environmental benefits of a transformation. This shift is not merely about reducing meat consumption but about fostering a global food culture that values diversity, sustainability, and health.
Achieving this transformation will require concerted action from all stakeholders: governments, businesses, civil society and individuals. Policymaking will play a crucial role, with strategies such as taxation of unsustainable food products, subsidies for sustainable farming practices, and investment in agricultural innovation being key levers.
However, these policies must be carefully designed to avoid any adverse effects, such as price hikes or job losses, to ensure the transition to sustainable food systems is as inclusive as it is equitable.
The economic case is compelling. The costs of transforming food systems are dwarfed by the potential benefits, not just in monetary terms but in the preservation of natural resources, improved public health outcomes, and climate change mitigation. High-income countries stand to benefit from adopting this transformative approach by avoiding significant economic damage, potentially exceeding the cumulative losses from past financial crises.
Yet, the path to a sustainable food future is not a uniform one. It will require tailored strategies that respect the unique contexts of different countries and regions. In some areas, the focus might be on reducing the consumption of animal products. In others, it might be on improving access to more-nutritious foods to combat lack of nutrition.
The overarching goal, however, remains the same: To create food systems that are resilient, sustainable, and capable of feeding a growing global population without compromising the health of our planet.
The call to transform the global food system represents both a challenge and an opportunity. It is a challenge because it will demand significant changes in how we produce, consume, and think about food. But it is an opportunity to redefine our relationship with food, and to build a future in which food systems contribute positively to human health, the environment, and sustained prosperity.
The next few decades will be critical and we must therefore spearhead progress, one plate at a time.