News: Food Policy Experts’ Insights on Urbanization and Food Security

Mai Mahmoud (IFPRI-Egypt)

Rapid urban growth represents opportunities and challenges for food and nutrition security around the globe. Over half of the world’s population now live in cities; and by 2030, the share of people living in urban areas is projected to overtake the share living in rural areas in most MENA countries.

The combination of urbanization, population growth and rising incomes provides opportunities for agroindustry-led economic transformation in the MENA region. However, in order to tap these opportunities, governments need to tackle the challenge of developing strong links between rural food producers and urban markets to support both rural and urban populations. What are the lessons learned from different countries in improving infrastructure and developing agricultural value chains to cope with urban growth? How can countries like Egypt benefit from these experiences and apply best practices within their idiosyncratic contexts? These issues were addressed by distinguished experts in IFPRI Egypt’s May Seminar that took place in partnership with the Faculty of Economics and Political Science (FEPS), Cairo University. The Seminar launched IFPRI’s 2017 Global Food Policy Report (GFPR) which reviews the major food policy issues, developments, and decisions of 2016, and highlights challenges and opportunities for 2017 at the global and regional levels.

During the seminar, His Excellency, Aly Moselhy, minister of supply and internal trading, stressed the fact that “food security represents one of the biggest challenges facing countries like Egypt with high population growth.” Accordingly, an overarching vision for attaining food security and agricultural development is crucial for the achievement of the sustainable development goals in Egypt. Dr. Moselhy added that, in addition to clear visions, the development of functioning markets and logistic facilities is vital for minimizing inefficiencies in the food system and for reducing food waste. He also explained that “subsidy reforms must be evaluated in a holistic way and in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and fairness.” That is, the government should assess all its current subsidies – including on energy, food, and cash to decide on the best, “needs-based” social protection strategy.

Those remarks were echoed by Shenggen Fan, director general of IFPRI, who also emphasized the growing challenge of “the double-burden of malnutrition” in Egypt. “The term double-burden of malnutrition”, Dr. Fan clarified, “refers to the coexistence of high rates of overweight and obesity on the one hand, and malnutrition and stunting on the other.” This phenomenon has been particularly prevalent in middle-income countries in the MENA region, with Egypt facing one of the most pronounced instances of the “double-burden of malnutrition”. Addressing this challenge through the reform of existing policies and programs can make a critical contribution to accelerating the country’s economic and social development.

Moreover, the rapid growth of urbanization adds to the challenges facing middle-income countries by shifting the burdens of hunger and malnutrition to urban areas. As explained by Mr. Aly Abousabaa, director general of the International Center for Agriculture Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), the urban poor face unique challenges for two main reasons. First, they are highly dependent on the informal sector which is characterized by high vulnerability to income and price shocks. Second, they tend to live in highly populated slums with limited access to basic services. Hence, infrastructure investments are key to eradicate poverty and enhance rural-urban linkages. In addition, investments in agriculture research have high potentials in providing science-based solutions to increase food production and improve seed variety. Here comes the role of ICARDA in providing agriculture research support particularly in countries highly vulnerable to climate change, which is the case for most countries in the MENA region.

International partners such as the EU also play a key role in supporting development programs. Mr. David Stephane, program manager at the European Union delegation, presented the EU efforts in enhancing food security in Egypt through supporting various development programs. For instance, the EU supports programs working on socio-economic development by providing employment opportunities to more than 40,000 youth in different governorates and support projects funded by the GIZ that work on upgrading the informal sector.

Indeed effective policies for tackling food insecurity need to consider the multi-dimensional nature of the issue. Dr. Racha Ramadan, assistant professor at FEPS Cairo University, explained both the supply and demand side challenges for attaining food security in Egypt. On the supply side, limited natural resources, insufficient agricultural production, and waste and leakages in the food supply chain exacerbate food security challenges. While on the demand side, high population growth and persistently high poverty rates are among the most significant challenges.

Therefore, integrating food security policies into urban development strategies is essential for sustainable development. Dr. Hala Abou-Ali, professor at FEPS Cairo University, stressed on the importance of following an integrated approach and increasing investments in rural development. The necessity of upgrading informal food markets was also explained by Dr. Abou-Ali. Replacing informal markets with new marketplaces aiming for improving hygiene behavior and developing best practices. Furthermore, Dr. Abou-Ali pointed out the required reforms to the legal framework governing food markets, access to seeds, and the application of “intellectual property” concepts to seed-variety innovations.

The seminar ended with a fruitful discussion that paved way for a number of open research questions. The question on how to best advance the reform of food subsidies came on top of the discussion, where the emphasis was on the need for analyzing the role of food subsidies within the broader context of social protection in Egypt.