UN warns of food security polycrisis in Arab world

Kuwaiti economist says Russia's withdrawal from Black Sea grain deal could worsen picture

Food prices in Yemen are being closely watched after Russia quit the UN-brokered grain deal. EPA
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A UN official responsible for the Arab world said on Tuesday that millions in the region face food insecurity during a polycrisis of conflict, climate change and economic turmoil.

Rola Dashti, a Kuwaiti economist and executive secretary of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, said Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal threatened to worsen the picture.

She told a UN food summit in Rome that a “tangible global decline” in nutrition since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic put at risk “hard-won progress” over recent decades.

Lebanon also warned of “negative trends” as countries assess progress on tackling hunger. The summit heard plans by the UAE’s presidency of Cop28 to put an overhaul of food and agriculture at the heart of global climate action.

Ms Dashti echoed the Cop28 presidency’s calls for a transformation of food systems in the shadow of “interwoven crises” which while “potent alone, become even more devastating when combined”.

In Yemen, 17 million people are suffering from acute food insecurity because of “prolonged violent conflict and economic hardship”, she said.

She described Somalia and Ethiopia as being at risk of famine and “gripped by severe drought and political instability”.

“And in Sudan, against the backdrop of violence and severe inflation, the devastating impact of flooding has left 19 million people grappling with food insecurity,” she said.

“Recent actions like the termination of the Black Sea grain deal by the Russian Federation threaten to propel global wheat and bread prices further, pushing millions more into food insecurity and jeopardising food aid to vulnerable nations such as Yemen and Somalia.

“The hard-won progress of recent decades in human development and food security is now under threat. We must act to ensure that no child goes to sleep hungry or suffers from malnutrition.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Monday that Russia’s decision to withdraw safety guarantees from Black Sea cargo ships was already causing higher food prices.

Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s top producers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other agricultural goods. Lebanon and Somalia are among the countries that typically rely on Ukrainian exports.

Karima Ahmed Al-Hada’a, representing a nutrition movement in Yemen, said the country was seeing food go to waste despite a “very challenging context” for the country.

“Promoting a healthy diet is very important even in such contexts, and nutrition and education is still very important for kids,” she said.

Cop28 plan

The climate threat to food will be a focus of negotiations at Cop28 in Dubai, with the UAE presidency envisaging a leaders’ declaration on the subject as a show of “national leadership and action”.

Agriculture is regarded as a driver of climate change, a result of deforestation and emissions from farming, and a sector that is vulnerable to the effects of global warming, such as flooding and drought.

Mariam Al Mheiri, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment, said there was “no realistic pathway” to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change without an overhaul of agriculture.

A failure to act would also mean that many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are not achieved, said the minister, who has been asked to lead the Cop28 presidency’s global efforts on food.

“We call on all governments to work with us in developing and signing a leaders’ declaration on food systems, agriculture and climate action,” Ms Al Mheiri said.

“At the heart of this declaration we’re calling on governments to integrate climate adaptation and mitigation into their national food system strategies, planning tools and commitments, and for each country to do it in its own way.”

Updated: October 16, 2023, 11:43 AM