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Import dependence could threaten Near East food security, FAO warns

Import dependence could threaten Near East food security, FAO warns

The high dependency on food imports in the Near East poses a formidable challenge for countries throughout the region and exposes them to a number of food security risks, including higher prices, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today.

"By virtue of the high import dependence, access to concessionary food imports is extremely important for many Near East countries to supplement their domestic supplies," FAO said as its 26th Regional Conference for the Near East continued in Tehran. In the past, countries in the region benefited from low world prices and the subsidized exports associated with the export subsidy and credit programmes of the European Union and the United States.

"While import dependence varies widely among countries, with Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and the Gulf states importing as much as 50 per cent of their wheat and flour, it is the low-income food-deficit countries that face the greatest difficulties finding foreign exchange earnings to finance their imports," FAO said.

Multilateral agricultural trade reforms are also expected to have a negative impact on food aid and subsidized food exports to the Near East, carrying the risk of increased food import bills, the agency said.

According to FAO, agricultural trade in the Near East has remained limited even though many countries in the region have liberalized their agriculture sectors by eliminating or reducing input subsides, removing or reducing guaranteed producer prices and liberalizing exchange rates and trade regimes in part because fruit and vegetables dominate agricultural trade in the region.

The main external market for fruit and vegetables is the European Union (EU), where tariffs vary by product, season and country of origin, FAO said. Higher tariffs are imposed during periods when imports compete with domestic production and most of the Near East's exports of fruit and vegetables to the EU are also subjected to seasonal tariff quotas, which are duty free.

The agency cautioned against the continued dominance of fruit and vegetables in agricultural exports and urged the region to diversify into newer and higher value products, while promoting competitiveness to better integrate domestic enterprises into the international economy.