A senior FAO official said Tuesday that food prices in the MENA region have risen by up to 80 percent since 2002. “Despite prices of food declining a bit from their highest point during the peak of global food price crisis in mid 2008, recent price increases pushed food prices 80 percent above their 2002 levels.” Saad al-Otaibi, assistant director-general of FAO said at the opening of the Regional Agro-Industries Forum held at Le Royal Hotel Beirut.
Otaibi explained that some of the region’s countries were unable to cope with the increasing food needs stemming from fast-growing populations. “This is particularly relevant to poor countries which have high population growth rates, given continuous pressure international food prices put on economies,” he said.
Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan, who also spoke at the opening of the forum, emphasized that Lebanon was facing similar problems. He said the country was subject to fluctuations in international food prices, a result of importing 80 to 85 percent of the food it needs, he said.
Hajj Hasan argued that this phenomenon was a result of economic policies had been promoting services and real estate sectors and marginalizing productive sectors. “Our food in Lebanon is tied to any political or economic crisis abroad … We do support free trade but ‘not a free trade’ that eliminates national production and agriculture. Free trade should be also about exporting goods and fostering food security.”
Hajj Hasan called for bolstering trade among the region’s countries saying Lebanon’s trade agreements with developed countries were biased against the agro-industrial sector.
Regional representative of UNIDO, Khaled al-Mekwad, emphasized the role of agro-industries in economic development in the MENA region. He said it contributed in fighting poverty, lessening emigration and fostering rural development.
The global food and financial crises of 2007 and 2008 have pushed an additional 115 million people into hunger, FAO reports projected. It expects persisting international economic crises are likely to further aggravate food security through affecting employment and incomes internationally.
The three-day event, organized by FAO (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization) and UNIDO (U.N. Industrial Development Organization), is being attended by government officials, non-governmental organizations, private sector agro-industry enterprises and researchers from across the 20 countries of the region. Participants will discuss the effects of the 2006-08 world food crisis on food security in the region.
At the end of the forum, they will suggest concrete policy recommendations that organizers say could help promote the region’s agro-industrial sector. A sector which they have stressed was crucially in need of investment as well as support from the public sector. Such investments would in turn boost job creation and sustainable economic growth in the region.
The forum had urged, in its opening session, the region’s governments to strengthen bilateral and regional cooperation in the field, harmonize policies and increase food production to foster regional food security.
The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” But experts said food security in the region is severely undermined by the region’s constantly growing import of the majority of the food it consumes. All the panelists speaking at the opening session warned against this trend.