EATx Middle East and North Africa Summary

Highlights from the EATx Middle East and North Africa

Published March 23, 2015

The MENA region is the most food import dependent in the world, yet self-sufficiency could be significantly boosted in order to buffer global market volatility.

«The key is efficiency, efficiency and efficiency» H.E. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak

“The Arab countries have only achieved 70% of their potential to sustainably produce food”, stresses H.E. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Secretary General of the Environmental Agency of Abu Dhabi. “The key is efficiency, efficiency and efficiency”, she says. Better infrastructure and technologies to desalinate and treat sewage water are needed, and this requires increased governmental investment in research & development. In conjunction with the Global Forum for Innovation in Agriculture in Abu Dhabi, UAE, the EAT initiative hosted, together with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the Royal Norwegian Embassy, a high-level EATx seminar in order to address the most urgent issues intersecting food, health and sustainability in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. Experts included representatives from ministries, research organisations and private sector.

“Until the 1990s, the biosphere buffered the environmental impacts of human activities, including food production. We are now hitting the ceiling for what Mother Earth can withstand”, says Mattias Klum, nature photographer and film-maker at National Geographic. The global food system must shift towards supporting human health within safe environmental limits.

«Only 2% of the world’s renewable freshwater resources are in the Arab region» Ahmad Basel Alyousfi

The MENA region has the lowest water availability per capita in the world. “Only 2% of the world’s renewable freshwater resources are in the Arab region”, highlights Ahmad Basel Alyousfi, Director of the Regional Centre for Environmental Health Activities at the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office.

«When we look at the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) we see the food system at perhaps its most complex. In contrast to other regions of the world the number of undernourished people has increased here. At the same time, this diverse region is grappling with rising overweight and obesity creating a “double burden” of malnutrition. » Marc Van Ameringen

So far, no country has bent the curves of national obesity rates, so we don’t have a roadmap for how to do it. We need adequate incentives and regulations that protect consumers, especially children, from unhealthy diets that are high in calories and low in micronutrients

«To combat micronutrient deficiencies in the region, we must move away from a pure calorie and productivity focus towards a nutrition and environmental stewardship focus» Frank Rijsberman

Farmers need to be educated in production methods that maintain the ecology of landscapes, enhance the quality of soils, and also provide cultural and recreational services. “Promoting an integrated agenda on food, health and sustainability is essential”, says Ad Spijkers, FAO sub-regional Office Coordinator for the Gulf Cooperation Council States and Yemen.

 

The fast regional urbanisation is causing mental health problems, as well as making people lose their connection with food. Labels are often perceived as confusing, so information about food must be better conveyed. There is, however, an emerging shift in demand towards organic food and interest in how food is produced. These timid trends need to grow into a social movement.

«There are low-hanging fruits we can act on already now, such as tackling food waste» Mattias Klum

Solutions can also be found by thinking out of the box. For instance, the development of aquaculture in the desert, and the consumption of novel food sources, such as eating cassava leaves rather than roots, which provide significantly greater nutrition value.

About 70% of the world’s ecological commodities are controlled by some five hundred private companies, representing a major concentration of leverage power which suggests the need for policy-makers to acknowledge the central role of business in achieving a transformative change towards sustainable food systems that promote public health – a transformation which also conveys huge business opportunities and innovation potential.