American University of Beirut

Food Security Threat to a Turbulent Region - Full Text Summary

The central question becomes: how does the MENA region sustain its people, given that today almost 80% of food in the Middle East is imported, and that figure is expected to continue rising, an AUB Beirut-New York City seminar concludes.

By the end of this century, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) population is expected to reach over one billion people, and in 2020 it is estimated that the MENA region and Europe will be equal in population size.

Dr. Martin Keulertz, AUB Assistant Professor of Food Security, addressed this and more in a recent roundtable discussion in New York City, with video links to participants Dr. Rabi Mohtar, Research Professor at Texas A&M University in Texas, and Rachel Ann Bahn, AUB Instructor and Food Security Coordinator at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Science in Beirut.

“We are in a make-it-or-break-it scenario,” he said, “and water scarcity is key to food security.” The core issue the participants focused on was how this rapidly growing region can address its future food requirements through sustainable and adapted domestic food production, along with agricultural trade.

Rural areas will be ground zero of the upcoming crisis, as population increases spur further urbanization and people move to cities in search of safety and resources. “Arab cities will need to find ways to absorb this incoming population with both jobs and food,” said Dr. Keulertz, adding that, “water scarcity will be the key issue of climate change in the MENA region.” As the population increases and uses more water, this will further stress agricultural sustainability. This will be felt particularly in countries like Yemen and Egypt, which have seen some of the largest population growths.

The MENA region produces less food than it consumes, and the gap is intensifying. The region will be increasingly more dependent on the world market—Russia, the United States, Australia—for food. Dr. Keulertz suggests that “Arab countries explore joining forces as one market.” As a unified trading block, the region will better position its political leverage and buying power, as trade dependency has an impact on the region’s adaptability in addressing resource scarcities. This is especially salient with a renewed Russia flexing itself across MENA region, as seen in Syria, which impacts the geopolitical landscape and its economic sustainability. Russia is already an important distributor of wheat in the MENA region.

The Arab Spring of 2011 demonstrates how political unrest often follows volatile price spikes in the food market. “Governments would be smart to take note of their food supply as a predictor of such unrest,” said Dr. Keulertz. He emphasized that hidden hunger--people having food, but not enough nutrition—is a growing threat in the Arab region, with little attention being paid to it.

“By 2050, it is estimated that there will be a 55% increased demand on water resources, 60% on food, and 80% on energy in the MENA region”, said Dr. Rabih Mohtar, research professor at Texas A&M University, and now dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences (FAFS) at AUB. His presentation emphasized that strategies to address resource scarcities must address “the water, food, and energy nexus”.

Interconnectedness among food, energy and water, and the development of localized solutions were Dr. Mohtar’s key research findings for developing a holistic solution. His work emphasized that the majority of food is produced under dry land agriculture, so it is critical for the MENA region to develop ways to improve agricultural production under marginal conditions in a drastically changing climate landscape.

Questions addressed during the Q&A session:

It was noted by several speakers that a university is a change agent that can bring other universities together to learn from other countries and transfer knowledge. AUB’s FAFS is the first and only known program dealing with these issues at the graduate level in the MENA region, and the program takes an interdisciplinary approach. Rachel Bahn noted that the Food Security Program at AUB fills the gaps in codifying and collecting what has been done already that may not be well publicized. AUB faculty already are working on urban agriculture and other interventions in the region.

In response to questions from Beirut and New York on how higher education institutions can address resource scarcities, the consensus was “research and teach”. Institutions can conduct water and food research and work together with other academics, while also promoting adaptation to climate-smart diets that include lentils, legumes, and less red meat. Academia can identify strategic imports to pool the Arab world’s collective leverage on the world market, and identify creative production solutions such as urban agriculture. Dr. Mohtar drove the conversation towards the importance of “local knowledge” that captures age-old legacies and practices that are well adapted to the semi-arid climatic conditions.

The UN has the power to bring in international laws and conventions to lobby countries for stronger collaboration in order to avert potential strife. The UN Convention on Shared Water Courses, for example, can be directly applied with good effect on the MENA region, which depends on countries outside of the region for its water.

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