A new report says obtaining reliable food supplies at stable prices is one of the most crucial challenges facing the Arab world, especially its poorer countries.
Food security a 'serious challenge' for Middle East countries
Because the region imports more than 50 per cent of its food, it is particularly vulnerable to price increases when supplies are interrupted, according to the report by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
The countries most at risk are Yemen, Djibouti and Comoros. The Gulf states are less affected because they can more easily afford food imports.
The institute's report, entitled Beyond the Arab Awakening, studied the availability of food and people's ability to access it in the 22 Arab League member states, and Turkey and Iran.
Food security is a "serious challenge for the region", the report concluded, because of its high dependency on food imports, problems generating foreign exchange to finance those imports, rising food demand driven by high population growth and limited potential for agricultural production because of the lack of water.
"Food security has deteriorated in most countries in the region as a result of the global food crises in 2007-08 and 2010-2011", the report says.
A 21 per cent spike in food prices brought about by shortages in supply caused riots in 23 countries worldwide in 2008.
In 2010-2011, the increase in prices for food staples in part helped to prompt the protests against ruling regimes that led to the Arab Spring, the authors of the report argue.
Olivier Ecker, co-author of the report, said the regional unrest was a "clear income-poverty, food security story" that began when protests in Tunisia, triggered by the December 2010 self-immolation of a vegetable seller, Mohammad Bouazizi, toppled the government.
He said the official figures for poverty in the Arab word were often flawed as they are "politically motivated and systematically biased".
Using other measures, such as rising statistics for child malnutrition and child stunting, "a significant difference between the world average and the Arab region" opens up, Mr Ecker said.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Arab region has low levels of malnutrition compared with other developing regions but is one of two world regions - the other being sub-Saharan Africa - where the number of undernourished has risen since the beginning of the 1990s. That figure has increased from about 19.8 million in 1990-1992 to 25.5 million in 2002-2004.
The IFPRI report finds that child malnutrition rates have grown in Egypt and remain high in Somalia, Sudan, Comoros and Yemen.
A report released yesterday by Save The Children estimated that five children around the world die every minute because of chronic malnutrition and that almost half a billion children are at risk of permanent damage over the next 15 years.
Mr Ecker said the structural problems facing Arab countries regarding food production, importation and distribution were the same now as in recent years. What has changed in the wake of the Arab Spring, he said, is that "the additional dimension is that the people are demanding change and that they have recognised their power".
The IFPRI report concludes that Arab countries must try to foster economic growth that enhances food security at both the national and household levels, and government spending needs to be made more efficient.
The report argues that "the region urgently needs national dialogues about societies' joint vision and economic development strategies".