A new report says Arab countries face a serious food security challenge and that poverty rates are much higher than official numbers suggest.
It blames the situation on vulnerability to volatile food prices, natural disasters and water scarcity.
The International Food Policy Research Institute, IFPRI, says its report shows a more realistic picture of the Arab world.
"In general, we know way too little about the food security and poverty in the Arab world and that has several reasons. And one of the major reasons is that the access and availability to data is really limited," said Clemens Breisinger, an IFPRI research fellow and lead author of the report.
IFPRI said its report – Beyond the Arab Awakening – uses "innovative research methods and diverse sources of information."
"The first message of that report is essentially the poverty and food security situation may be much worse than suggested by official numbers. And the kind of policy implication out of this is [that] in the wake of the Arab awakening and the whole drive for more transparency, a major issue to tackle is also data availability and access in order to improve decision making and information of the people," he said.
Breisinger said the Arab world has a number of factors that make it distinct from other regions.
"Number one, it's the most food import dependent region in the world. It imports more than 50 percent of its food consumption and is by far the highest [such rate] in the world. At the same time, agriculture potential is somewhat limited. That is severely constrained mainly by water and exacerbated by climate change," said Breisinger.
Adding to that is a high population growth rate, second only to sub-Saharan Africa. So consumer demand puts a strain on food supplies.
"Given the supply constraints – more demand no matter what – they will further drift apart. So the food gap will increase, which obviously increases the vulnerability of that region to global food price shocks – the ones that we saw in 2008 and to some extent in 2010," he said.
The IFPRI report also raised concerns about high child "under nutrition" rates. Breisinger described children as the most vulnerable segment in society, while at the same time being society's greatest asset.
"If children are malnourished at any time between zero and 5 years, that actually has long-term implications. Reduces their IQ, their productivity and thus overall the prospects for the country," he said.
The report said Egypt has seen an increase in child "under nourishment" over the past 8 years." A very high prevalence of child "under nutrition" rates is reported in such countries as Sudan, Somalia, Comoros and Yemen.
It says, often, not enough of the household income is spent on food, saying in Yemen, for example, 25 percent is spent on Khat. U.S. narcotic experts say chewing Khat leaves "can induce a state of euphoria and elation, as well as increase alertness and arousal."
The International Food Policy Research Institute recommended that Arab countries collect better data on their populations regarding poverty and food security. It also says greater emphasis should be placed on creating jobs by increasing exports other than oil. Finally, it says government spending on agriculture, education, health, infrastructure and social protection is "most critical."
The IFPRI report was released in Beirut at the Food Secure Arab World conference (2/6-7) sponsored by IFPRI, the U.N. and the Social Commission for Western Asia.