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DUBAI: Millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa were suffering the severe effects of hunger and malnutrition long before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted supply chains and weighed on government spending . Now, the war in Ukraine threatens to exacerbate the problem and global food prices are expected to continue to rise.
This is happening against the backdrop of an ever-worsening climate emergency, as rising temperatures around the world compound problems such as water shortages, land degradation, wildfires and rural trips. This puts additional pressure on agriculture and the food security of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
In an effort to anticipate this escalation of the food crisis, and in recognition that it is intrinsically linked to the climate emergency, an ambitious new initiative led by the United Arab Emirates and the United States aims to double investments in climate-smart agriculture over a five-year period – from the $4 billion announced by US President Joe Biden at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, to $8 billion by the time COP27 will be held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt this year.
The initiative – the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, or AIM for Climate – brings together more than 140 global partners from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors to double investment in decision-making and climate change. science- and data-based policy-making. on two of the most pressing issues facing the MENA region: food security and climate change.
Speaking in late February after AIM’s inaugural climate ministerial meeting at Expo 2020 Dubai, Mariam Almheiri, the UAE’s minister for climate change and the environment, said that although systems food are responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions, they can also help solve the problem.
“Food systems can be a challenge but also a solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “More than two billion people are directly connected to the food system sector, so we need to make food systems more efficient, decarbonize and secure the livelihoods of people who depend on the sector.”
Noting the UAE’s reliance on imported food – around 90% of the country’s food needs are met by other countries – Almheiri said partnerships such as AIM for Climate are essential to help arid countries such as than those in the MENA region to learn from experiences. others. In addition, the adaptation of food systems will play a central role in the global drive towards sustainable development.
“The transformation towards sustainable food systems is an urgent task and we don’t have much time,” Almheiri said. “The United Arab Emirates seeks to become a leading exporter of sustainable agricultural solutions for hot and arid climates.”
Part of this transformation will involve the adoption of emerging technologies, which are already enabling the UAE to produce foods that would be impossible under normal climatic conditions, such as salmon, quinoa and berries, all of which can now be grown sustainably. in the UAE.
“We want to share our experience with our partners and work with other countries to address critical challenges in our food systems,” Almheiri told guests at the Expo 2020 Dubai meeting. “We see ourselves as an open laboratory for innovating, discovering and proposing solutions.
While it is exciting to hear about such commitments and to learn about the applications of new technologies, Almheiri said, food security and climate pressures cannot be addressed without concrete global goals.
“To take it to the next level, we have put tangible results that we want to achieve by COP27, which will move to the United Arab Emirates as we host COP28. We need to look at the deliverables,” she added .
Thomas J. Vilsack, the US Secretary of Agriculture, also spoke at the Expo 2020 Dubai event and praised the UAE’s efforts to unite nations in a common cause.
“There is a spirit of innovation in Dubai that all of us around the world should emulate: a belief in a better and brighter future,” he said.
Securing funding is now essential for the project to succeed, Vilsack said, as he called on governments, the private sector and non-profit organizations to pool their resources to support smallholder farmers in the countries. in development, commit to reducing methane emissions and promote emerging industries. such as nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics, sensors and drones.
“AIM for Climate’s government partners today demonstrated their strong commitment to working together to close the investment gap in climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation, (which is) needed to address the twin challenges of world hunger and the climate crisis,” Vilsack said. .
“We are proud of the wide range of AIM for Climate partners working to provide impactful solutions for all. AIM for Climate is looking to expand its network even further with new participants from around the world. »
Food security concerns have intensified since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24. These two countries are major suppliers of wheat and vegetable oils to global markets and several countries in the MENA region depend on them for staple foods, including bread.
Financial sanctions imposed on Russia and disruptions to shipping have pushed up prices and fuel fears of impending shortages. In Yemen and Afghanistan, where hunger is already a reality for many, the prospect is terrifying.
The 2021 Near East and North Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition report, released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in December, found that 69 million people in the region lacked access an adequate food supply in 2020, and 50.2 million people — 11% of the population — were undernourished.
“This is an astonishing figure for our region,” Ahmad Mukhtar, senior economist at FAO’s Regional Office for the Near East and North Africa in Cairo, told Arab News.
“There are factors that we know, such as climate change, inequality and protracted conflict in our region, but one aspect that needs to be highlighted is that our region is particularly heavily dependent on imported food.”
About two-thirds of MENA’s food is imported, making it extremely vulnerable to supply chain shocks, as the COVID-19 pandemic has painfully shown. According to an FAO report published in November, progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goal of achieving “zero hunger” by 2030 has been severely affected by the health crisis, many of the achievements of the past decade have been reversed.
At least 132 million people in the MENA region have been plunged into chronic hunger during the pandemic, with up to 14% of food production lost along the supply chain before it even reaches consumers .
Areas where progress has stalled or reversed include agricultural systems and small-scale food production, which have borne the economic brunt of the COVID-19 crisis.
The region is also ill-equipped to manage strategic food reserves. Mukhtar said structured plans are needed for food management and distribution and to prevent waste. This will largely depend on the deployment of new technologies and innovations.
“That’s an area to focus on,” Mukhtar added. “There are certain structural issues, such as inequality, conflict and climate change, which are all external factors that go beyond the realm of agrifood policy, so we have to look at what is in our hands.”