Trade to support food security and nutrition - United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia
8 December 2022

Beirut time

Expert Group Meeting

Trade to support food security and nutrition

  • Online

ESCWA conducted an in-depth review on aspects of the food trade in the Arab region to assess its potential to support food security and nutrition. The review highlighted the nutritional challenges the region is facing by assessing the availability of major food groups and the importance of trade. The analysis also covered the impact of rising food prices. 

ESCWA is organizing a virtual meeting on trade for food security and nutrition to discuss key trends and issues in the Arab region. Key data and information are being presented and discussions held on how the region can ensure that food trade continues to support food security and good nutrition as the region transforms its food systems. Countries are encouraged to build on the key recommendations emanating from the report and the meeting.

Participants include government officials and experts. 

Outcome document

  • Although the region lacks adequate natural resources for large scale food production, opportunities still exist for selected food commodities in which the region has proven production advantage and is currently achieving close to self-sufficiency. These opportunities need to be built upon to further support and enhance intra-regional trade.
  • The lack of adequate productive capacity implies that trade should be an integral part of food security strategies in the Arab region. The growing natural resources scarcity and continued low productivity, do not allow the region to adapt nor mitigate effectively against arising crises, which included recently the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine in addition to the simmering impact of climate change.
  • Given the high reliance of Arab countries on food imports, appropriate measures have to be taken to enhance efficiency in trade and to promote regional cooperation and collaboration notably for trade negotiations and facilitation particularly during crises that might negatively affect food procurement.
  • Mitigation measures should include enhancing the contribution of traditional diets to overall nutrition as these diets have proven to be healthy and nutritious and thus could help enhance the resilience of communities and countries.
  • Food sovereignty needs to be emphasized upon to provide countries more options to choose what they produce, what they eat and where it comes from, which would allow them to better mitigate against global food markets volatility.
  • Inefficiencies in transport and deficient infrastructure need to be addressed as they are essential to food trade and well-functioning food markets. A lack of efficient national infrastructure means that countries might find it easier to procure their food from global markets while local or regional capacity might be available.
  • Appropriate financial mechanisms need to be identified to enhance food supply chain infrastructure and to facilitate intraregional trade.
  • Food safety is a crucial issue in the region and needs to be strengthened including by harmonizing standards across Arab countries to facilitate intra-regional trade. As of now there is no unique and legally recognized regional quality and standards.
  • Appropriate consumer protection and traceability schemes need to be designed and implemented to support a well-functioning regional food safety platform.

The first presentation highlighted that the trade deficit of the Arab Region keeps widening notably for countries with more means and/or less natural resources, which rely more on food trade. Food import as a percentage of GDP is more than 3% for all countries but two while it indicates that countries are highly vulnerable to global food market volatility. Cereal consumption continues to trend higher while production remains largely flat indicating that countries need to act on their food demand through diet change while increasing productivity.

The second presentation provided the overall gist of the “Trade to support Food Security and Nutrition in the Arab region” report. Trade has been and remains a core topic in the Arab region due to the still high population growth, rising water scarcity, increasing land degradation and higher climate change impact, which together determine the food security situation and the continued and growing dependence on food trade. The region is import-dependent on key staples, notably cereals, while being more self-reliant on fruits and vegetables and several animal-based produces. This opens the door to intra-regional trade for commodities in which the regions is more self-sufficient thereby relying global trade on those in which dependence is high. Arab countries are taking advantage of select trade agreements though more work remains to be done notably as it pertains to world trading mechanisms. The region faces varying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threat about inter-regional food trade, which include the lack of adequate infrastructure but the inadequacy of food safety which is essential though a recurring problem in relation to trade.

The third presentation further explained the enabling role of trade for food security. Emphasis was put on non-tariff measures, standards and regulations notably as related to food safety and key challenges and policy priorities and actions. These included among others the need to diversify diets and sources of food import, reducing the cost of imports and enhancing trade facilitation.

The fourth presentation highlighted the importance of collaboration to support food security in the region. It also revisited some key components of food security that already exist to support the region.

A successful case study from Yemen was highlighted, which arose despite the country being in conflict. It was highlighted that the country still has huge potential but needs adequate assistance, notably to introduce new vegetables varieties that are already well accepted in local markets and to increase the production of wheat with high standard quality. Views were further exchanged on the issue of food safety and regulations concerning the import of food commodities to ensure healthy diets. There is a need for a harmonization of quality standards of traded regional commodities and to strengthen standards. Emphasis needs to be put on regional cooperation with the appropriate support of regional and international organizations. There is also a need to identify adequate financing to enhance transport from and to Arab countries and to promote interregional trade and standards to follow.

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