Rethinking the food system of Middle East and Northern Africa…

Published April 20, 2015

The speakers and panelists at the EATx Middle East and North Africa (MENA) event all addressed how to sustainably feed a growing population with a healthy diet. It is a global challenge. But in the MENA region, this challenge is particularly complex. At the same time, this region has an enormous amount of innovation, technology, resources and expertise. The remarks given at the EATx set the focus on how to use these resourches to build a food system that has at its core the provision of sustainable, nutritious diets that are accessible to all. Marc Van Ameringen, Executive Director of GAIN, one of the speakers, co-writes about the challenges and opportunities here, together with Dr. Gunhild A Stordalen and Mr. Mohamed Saleh Bashanfr, Managing Partner, SECOSALT who also is Head of Food Specialties Committee at the Egyptian Food Chamber, Ministry of Trade and Industry.

With almost every country in the world dealing with some form of malnutrition and food production being the single most important driver of climate change and environmental damage, feeding our growing population with a sustainable, healthy diet is a global challenge. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region this challenge is particularly complex.

In contrast to all other regions of the world, the number of undernourished people has increased from 16 million in 1990-92 to 33 million today. Almost one third of children under the age of five face lifelong health and development impairment due to insufficient access to nutritious foods. At the same time, the region is grappling with rising rates of overweight and obesity, creating an unforeseen “double burden” of malnutrition. Indeed, over 50% of the region’s adult population are currently overweight or obese, causing a dramatic increase in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and heart disease, placing an enormous burden on the health care systems. This has become the new “normal” face of malnutrition.

The bad news is that the MENA food system is getting more complex. Climate change, population growth, shifts towards urban living and the adoption of Western diets bring mutually reinforcing challenges. The MENA region has the highest rate of population growth worldwide and a rapidly growing urban population, with 66% expected to be living in cities by 2030. These trends place enormous pressures on the environment and finite resources such as fresh water and land. Half of the population in the MENA region already live under conditions of water stress. With the population expected to grow to nearly 700 million in 2050, per capita water availability will be halved.

The impacts go far beyond poor health. Recent research by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) revealed that food insecurity is one of the main drivers of unrest and conflict in the MENA region. Economic performance is also compromised by poor nutrition. In Egypt alone it is estimated that the consequences of child malnutrition reduces GDP by almost 2%.

Tackling the emerging public health crisis without exacerbating climate change and environmental damage require a radical rethinking of the entire region’s food system, from producer and importer to the end consumer. This will not be an easy task, but there are some priorities that can change the current paradigm.

First, improving nutrition and minimising the environmental footprint of the food system by making food supplies more diverse, nutritious and sustainable is essential. This means rebalancing production from mono crops and cereals, dairy and meat towards the more diverse production of fruit, vegetables and semi-arid nutritious crops that use less water and are more heat tolerant. Smallholder farmers who are often among the most malnourished, and lack the technology and knowledge necessary to be more efficient and sustainable, are crucial stakeholders in diversifying the food system.

Second, urgent action must be taken to tackle the growing burden of obesity and NCDs in the region. Changing the increasingly obesogenic environment must become a top priority, ensuring access to healthy and affordable food for all. A new policy framework aimed at protecting consumers, especially children, from unhealthy diets that are high in added salt, sugar and saturated fats, and low in micronutrients, is vital. Measures and incentives to ensure that healthy, diverse and sustainably produced foods become easily available and economically affordable must be developed.

Third, investment is needed to facilitate the development of interventions that can improve nutrition in a cost-effective, sustainable way. Fortifying staple foods and condiments with nutrients, for example, is both effective and cheap, costing as little as a few cents per person, per year. There has been significant progress in the region since Saudi Arabia first made adding iron, folic acid and vitamin A to wheat flour mandatory in 1978. Afghanistan, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Oman and Yemen are now all using fortification to reduce micronutrient deficiencies among vulnerable groups. But, there is still much to be done to expand these programs in the region.

Finally, the private sector needs to be engaged in a meaningful way in finding solutions to a more sustainable and nutritious food system. The food industry is a key stakeholder and a major catalyst for change, so it is important that businesses are included in a multi-stakeholder dialogue. This will enable policymakers to create regulatory frameworks that encourage the private sector to step up to the nutrition challenge and to create more sustainable business models.

Today, the international community is coming to terms with the importance of addressing the multiple, overlapping challenges of the food system. But, it’s not enough to merely imagine what a better food system will look like. The MENA region has an enormous amount of innovation, technology, resources and expertise. Let’s use them to build a food system that has at its core the provision of sustainable, nutritious diets that are accessible to all.

This article is written by Marc Van Ameringen based on speeches given at the EATx MENA event, coinciding with the Global Forum for Innovation in Agriculture 2015, Abu Dhabi. Coauthors are: Dr. Gunhild A Stordalen, MD/PhD, Founder and Director, EAT, and Mr. Mohamed Saleh Bashanfr, Managing Partner, SECOSALT and Head of Food Specialties Committee at the Egyptian Food Chamber, Ministry of Trade and Industry.