With almost every country in the world dealing with some form of malnutrition, and food production being the single most important driver of climate change and environmental damage, the world needs to find a way to feed its growing population with a sustainable, healthy diet. In the Middle East and North Africa (the MENA region) this challenge is particularly complex.

In contrast to other regions of the world, the proportion of undernourished people has increased from 16 million in 1990-92 to 33 million today. Almost one-third of children under the age of five face lifelong health and development impairment due to insufficient access to nutritious foods. At the same time, the region is grappling with rising rates of overweight and obesity, creating an unforeseen “double burden” of malnutrition. Indeed, more than 50% of the region´s adult population is currently overweight or obese, causing a dramatic increase in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and heart disease. It places an enormous burden on healthcare systems.

In the MENA region, the food system is becoming more complex. Climate change, population growth, shifts towards urban living and the adoption of Western diets bring mutually reinforcing challenges. The MENA region has the highest rate of population growth worldwide and a rapidly growing urban population, with 66% expected to be living in cities by 2030. These trends place enormous pressures on the environment and finite resources such as fresh water and land. Half of the population of the MENA region already lives with water stress. As the population grows to nearly 700 million in 2050, water availability per capita will be halved.

The effects go far beyond poor health. Recent research by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) revealed that food insecurity is one of the main drivers of unrest and conflict in MENA. Economic performance is also compromised by poor nutrition. In Egypt alone it is estimated that the consequences of child malnutrition reduces GDP by almost 2%.

Tackling the emerging public health crisis, without exacerbating climate change and environmental damage, requires a radical rethinking of the entire region´s food system, from producer and importer to the end consumer. This will not be an easy task, but there are some priorities that can change the current paradigm.

First, improving nutrition and minimizing the environmental footprint of the food system by making food supplies more diverse, nutritious and sustainable is essential. This means rebalancing production from mono crops and cereals, dairy and meat towards the more diverse production of fruit, vegetables and semi-arid nutritious crops that use less water and are more tolerant of heat. Smallholder farmers, who are often among the most malnourished, and who lack the technology and knowledge necessary to be more efficient and sustainable, are crucial stakeholders in diversifying the food system.

Second, urgent action must be taken to tackle the growing burden of obesity and NCDs in the region. Changing the increasingly obesogenic environment must become a top priority, ensuring everyone has access to healthy and affordable food. A new policy framework aimed at protecting consumers – especially children – from diets that are high in added salt, sugar and saturated fats, and low in micronutrients, is vital. Furthermore, measures and incentives to ensure that healthy, diverse and sustainably produced foods become easily available and affordable must be developed.

Third, investment is needed to facilitate innovations and development of interventions that can improve nutrition in a cost-effective, sustainable way. Fortifying staple foods and condiments with nutrients, for example, is both effective and cheap, costing as little as a few cents per person, per year. There has been significant progress in the region since Saudi Arabia first made adding iron, folic acid and vitamin A to wheat flour mandatory in 1978. Afghanistan, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Oman and Yemen are now all using fortification to reduce micronutrient deficiencies among vulnerable groups. But, there is still much to be done to expand these programmes.

Finally, the private sector needs to be engaged in a meaningful way in finding solutions to a more sustainable and nutritious food system. The food industry is a key stakeholder and a major catalyst for change, so it is important that businesses are included. This will enable policy-makers to create regulatory frameworks that encourage the private sector to step up to the nutrition challenge and invest in more sustainable business operations.

Today, the international community is coming to terms with the importance of addressing the multiple, overlapping challenges of the food system. But, it’s not enough to merely imagine what a better food system will look like. The MENA region has an enormous amount of innovation, technology, resources and expertise. Let’s use them to build a food system that has at its core the provision of sustainable nutritious diets that are accessible to all, and which have both public-health and environmental benefits.

The World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2015 takes place at the Dead Sea, Jordan, from 21-23 May. 

This article is based on speeches given at the EATx MENA event, coinciding with the Global Forum for Innovation in Agriculture 2015, Abu Dhabi.

Authors: Marc Van Ameringen, Executive Director, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). Dr. Gunhild A Stordalen, Founder and Director, EAT. Mohamed Saleh Bashanfr, Managing Partner, SECOSALT and Head of Food Specialties Committee at the Egyptian Food Chamber, Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Image: People buy bread on the first day of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, in a market downtown Tunisia June 29, 2014. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi