21 September 2021, MUSCAT/Rome – Ministers and other representatives of FAO Members in the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region shared today their concerns and priorities over how to respond to the COVID-19 disruptions and accelerate progress towards sustainable food systems, in a high-level roundtable during the FAO Regional Conference for the Near East.
Several participants highlighted that the COVID-19 crisis put additional pressure on regional food systems, which were already facing many challenges, such as rapidly expanding population, the impacts of climate changed, extreme water scarcity and the degradation of natural resources. The occurrence of heavy flooding and the Desert Locust invasions were also mentioned.
The Minister for Agriculture of Iran, Jahad Kazem Khavazi, emphasized the need to accelerate actions on long-term issues, particularly climate change, soil erosion and emergent pests, all of which have negative impacts on small-scale family farmers. “If this situation is not effectively addressed in the region, the risks are that all the efforts made in fighting hunger and poverty will come to nothing,” he warned.
The Iranian Minister also mentioned that Iran has used a mix of social protection measures, state support for e-commerce initiatives, assisted freight for the output of rural women and food baskets to mitigate the national impact of the pandemic on food security. “We believe this needs to be expanded in a regional perspective and hope FAO can help with this,” he said.
Concerns about commodity food prices and trade disruptions were also raised. The Minister for Agriculture of Lebanon, Abbas Mortada, noted that his country has a number of agricultural support schemes that are now threatened by a sharp currency depreciation and a worsening economic crisis. He suggested that a trust fund be created to enable exchange of expertise and resources between countries in the region – an idea that was echoed by Tunisia’s minister for Agriculture, Water Resources and Fisheries, Aksa Bahri.
In a similar vein, the representative of the Kingdom of Bahrain called upon FAO to establish a contingency plan for future emergencies based on what the COVID-19 crisis showed were vulnerable flash points. “Foodstuffs should not be stopped at the border and treated like hazardous material – they save lives,” the country’s official said. “We need to act at the level of the subregion as if it were all part of the same country.”
The Minister for Agriculture and Land Reclamation of Egypt, Al-Sayed el-Quseir, noted that making sure that transport to markets for agricultural outputs remains viable even is very important to facilitate investments by farmers who, for example, shift from thirsty cereals to higher-value but perishable fruit products.
Beyond its immediate impact, COVID-19 has also delayed strategic actions, such as an ambitious national plan by Sudan to expand use of uncultivated but arable lands that could drive output of sunflower and sesame seeds as well as cotton for export markets, according to the country’s acting Minister for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Abdelgadir M. A. Turkawi.
While the pandemic disruptions have been dire, in some cases they galvanized positive reactions. In Iraq, for example, the government has expanded its farm support from wheat to include fruit and vegetable production, and now has a surplus ready for export or processing. “Today we consider this a success story,” the representative of Iraq said.
Moving forward together
Facing a myriad of challenges, several participants called for a more integrated regional response, as it can lead to more and better investments, including from the private sector, with FAO portrayed as a key coordinator.
In her introductory remarks, FAO Deputy Director-General Beth Bechdol presented 12 key elements of a COVID-19 plan for the region. The elements comprise humanitarian programmes, data, analysis and policy support, advocacy of social protection for smallholders and the rural poor, schemes for enhancing youth and women’s economic empowerment, a One Health approach to trans-boundary plant and animal pests and diseases, and bolstering food safety standards and trade resilience, as well as supporting accessible digital innovation for small-scale farmers, inclusive value chains and stronger agri-food business models. Promoting healthier diets and bolstering farming enterprises in a region known for water scarcity are also key and ongoing priorities.
“It is clear how important agriculture and food security is to each of your countries and the entire region,” said Bechdol, adding that “the key is to establish a policy framework that enables change at scale, and when possible also fosters collective and aligned action to unlock investment and innovation.”
She also highlighted that partnerships are essential, especially when they can deliver and catalyze concrete actions from a diverse set of partners around specific areas of critical opportunity. “We need to conceive and put in place unique collaborations, where there’s an exchange of expertise and knowledge.”
There was also broad consensus on the importance of FAO’s Hand-in-Hand Initiative focus on bringing in new partners to drive rural transformation and growth and eradicate poverty and hunger once and for all across the region.
Representatives from Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Jordan and Mauritania also attended the event, among a total of 14 countries.
“We need our energies to work together in the region to bring better results for our people. We are living in extraordinary times,” said Thanawat Tiensin, Chair of the Committee on World Food Security, a FAO-hosted forum.
Representatives from non-State actors also participated in the meeting, such as the Arab Peasants and Agricultural Cooperatives Union (APACU), the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature (APN) and the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA).
The FAO Regional Conference for the Near East continues through 22 September and proceedings can be followed via webcast.