The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Food insecurity heats up in the Gulf

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on April 5, 2012

Having not fully recovered from global food prices hikes in 2007/08 and 2011, the import-dependent Persian Gulf region and nearby countries in the Middle East remain vulnerable to food insecurity. Ongoing land and water resource scarcity present a key challenge, in addition to conflict and political instability in some areas of the region. With just 2 per cent of land in the area of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) being arable, options to improve self-sufficiency through agricultural development are limited. Since the food price crisis, regional governments have instead pursued food security and price stability strategies through foreign land acquisition, food subsidy programmes and strategic food reserves. However, results from a recent report by the International Food Policy Research Institution (IFPRI) suggest that poverty and income inequality in the Arab world remain at critical levels and are likely more problematic than official figures indicate, with clear implications for food security.

One of the most urgent humanitarian situations is the GCC’s southern neighbour Yemen, with the World Food Programme estimating that one fifth of the country’s population of 24 million face severe hunger and require emergency food assistance. A further 5 million face moderate food insecurity. Hunger was formerly predominant in the country’s conflict zones, but has become widespread due to increased food and fuel prices, the lagging economy, drought and political instability.

One further emerging threat to the region’s food security is the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Egyptian livestock, which is a major food source for the Middle East. Current estimates suggest that there are nearly 100,000 suspected cases of foot and mouth and have been 9,000 livestock deaths since the outbreak in February 2012. Scientists are working to develop a vaccine and the Egyptian government is restricting the movement of livestock to reduce the risk of the disease spreading throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East.

In terms of strategies to address food insecurity in the Middle East, the IFPRI report found that unlike much of the developing world, Arab countries are best off pursuing economic growth led by the manufacturing and service sectors, rather than agriculture. At the recent conference on Water and Food Security in the Arabian Gulf, the UN Economic and Social Commissioner for Western Asia called for multidimensional food security and water security strategies for the GCC.  The private sector is also heeding the call for regional cooperation, with the head of the leading agribusiness group in Oman encouraging further technical research and government intervention in order to produce affordable, nutritious food.

With the GCC population expected to increase by 50 million in the next five years, global food prices likely facing further hikes in the short-to-medium term, and the ongoing severity of water resource scarcity, time is of the essence in Gulf countries’ pursuit to address the region’s food insecurity.

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