What do we know about the future of agri-food systems in Central and West Asia and North Africa (CWANA)?

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Food, land, and water systems face daunting challenges in the future, and the body of research exploring these challenges is growing rapidly. This note is part of a series developed by the CGIAR Foresight Initiative to summarize what we know today about the future of various aspects of food systems. The goal of these notes is to serve as a quick reference, point to further information, and help guide future research and decisions. This note was prepared in collaboration with the CGIAR Initiative on Fragility to Resilience in Central and West Asia and North Africa.

By Aymen Frija


Key messages 

  • Natural resources (including soil, water, biodiversity, and genetic resources) are expected to be further degraded in the Central and West Asia and North Africa (CWANA) region by 2050, which may seriously affect future food systems performance.
  • The sub-regions of the Middle East, the Near East, and the Maghreb will continue to be net importers of food by 2050 (around 70% of domestic food requirements).
  • There is a need for steering agri-food systems’ transformation in CWANA through innovative fast-tracking technology transfer approaches leading to sustainable growth of productivity.
  • Foresight analyses are needed to explore scenarios of agri-food systems transformation in the CWANA region, which integrates more efficient agricultural production, changing consumption and diet patterns, and reducing trade and importation risks related to international market volatility.

Recent trends and challenges 

Food systems in CWANA are characterized by well-known and documented dynamics and transformations, including challenges related to environment (aridity, degradation of soil, water and rangelands, climate change, etc.), socio-economic conditions (population growth, gender and other inequities, conflicts, small farms, lack of technology transfer, lack of investment, heavy dependence on food import, etc.), and political conditions (political economy and related market biases, low efficiency and effectiveness programs, etc.) (Shideed et al., 2010). Marginality and vulnerability in terms of present and future food production and access are also concerns. This is mainly due to the following factors:

  • Climate change is leading to a scarcer availability of blue (irrigation) and green (rainfall) water. Half of the population in MENA sub-region are already living under water stress, and per capita water availability is expected to be halved by 2050 (Belhaj and Soliman, 2021).
  • Population growth in the CWANA region is among the fastest in the world, with a total fertility rate of 2.8 in 2021, expected to decrease to 2.2 in 2050 (second highest after Sub-Sahara Africa) while the region population is expected to reach 770 million by 2050 (United Nations, 2022). This is expected to lead to further social pressure, increased demand for jobs and food, and migration (Frija, 2016; Belhaj and Soliman, 2021; Läderach et al., 2022).
  • However, agricultural productivity is not growing as fast as population (Mason-D’Croz et al., 2017; Fuglie et al., 2019). CWANA production systems are dominated by cereals, primarily wheat in the wetter and barley in the drier areas, in rotation with chickpea, lentil, and forage legumes (Van Duivenbooden et al., 2000; Frija, 2021). But domestic food production is increasingly unreliable; supply gaps are projected to expand by 2050, which will require continued reliance on high levels of imports.
  • Malnutrition is another key challenge. Around 55 million people in the MENA region are estimated to be undernourished, and around 20% of the population are food insecure (Belhaj and Soliman, 2021). These numbers are even higher in conflict areas such as Yemen (~ 24 million), Syria (~ 12 million), and Iraq (~ 4 million). In other countries such as Lebanon, Tunisia, and Egypt, food insecurity is mostly driven by inflation and slow economic growth. Malnutrition has long-term effects on human development, including cognitive capacity, which in turns affect long-term economic growth.
  • Around a third of calories consumed by inhabitants in the MENA region originate from subsidized wheat (Belhaj and Soliman, 2021), and the situation is not expected to change in the next few decades (Kruseman et al., 2020a, Frija, 2021; Kruseman et al., 2021). Current food systems in CWANA are not supporting human health and contribute to high diet-related problems (especially obesity and related diseases).
  • The ongoing severe depletion of natural resources such as water (Faysse et al., 2011; El Kharraz et al., 2012; Chebil et al., 2015; Dhehibi et al., 2017), rangelands (Louhaichi et al., 2016; Frija, 2020), soils (Ryan et al., 2012; Bahri et al., 2019), and biodiversity (Sarant, 2019) continue without any apparent signs of improvement or restoration.
  • The use of key inputs in the region’s rainfed production systems are also very low. In the 1960s and 1970s, almost no fertilizer was used in the region. Rapid increases in nitrogen (N) and to a lesser extent phosphorus (P) were recorded since then (Ryan et al., 2012). Fertilizer use in rainfed agriculture in the region is still low but is expected to rapidly increase in the coming decades.

Latest foresight research and findings on food systems in CWANA

Foresight studies in the region demonstrate that most social and financial problems faced by CWANA agri-food systems can be partly mitigated through more effective and sustainable use of croplands and water, among other natural resources (Van Duivenbooden et al., 2000; Shideed et al., 2010; El Kharraz et al., 2012; Alimkulova et al., 2014; Mason-D’Croz et al., 2017). Foresight studies shows that water scarcity is expected to continue (Zittis et al., 2021) adversely impacting job opportunities, farm incomes, agricultural exports, and the ability of the vulnerable communities in the region to access domestic water and food at affordable prices (Van Duivenbooden et al., 2000; El Kharraz et al., 2012). It also shows that food supplies within the CWANA region is expected to only marginally meet domestic consumption needs by 2030 & 2035, with continous relying on imports to fill significant supply gaps. in the coming few decades  (Frija, 2016, 2021; Kruseman et al., 2020b, 2021).

Even with the expected increase in input use in CWANA rainfed production systems, both water availability and soil fertility will persist as key constraints affecting the sustained growth of agricultural productivity by 2050 (Le Mouël et al.,2015). Several studies affirm the need for substantial future changes  in CWANA’s food systems to address environmental degradation, institutional inefficiencies, and enduringly high population growth rates (Van Duivenbooden et al., 2000; Shideed et al., 2010; El Kharraz et al., 2012; Ryan et al., 2012). 

Cimate change and higher temperatures (Zittis et al., 2021) is expected to make wheat production more difficult in many of the current breadbaskets of the CWANA region (Kruseman et al., 2018, 2020a). By 2050, the region’s dependence on food imports is projected to grow from 40% to around 50% of domestic food consumption (Le Mouël et al., 2015; Alwang et al., 2018). Some of the foresight studies shows that certain water-saving technologies, , such as raised bed mechanization in Egypt (Alwang et al., 2018), or conservation agriculture in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria will have significant impacts in bolstering future productivity in the coming three decades. These studies shows that among the most promising solutions to address the future scarcity of domestic food supply are scenarios that focus on enhanced technology transfer (Le Mouël et al., 2015).

Foresight studies indicate several trends in terms of consumption, diets, and nutrition in the region (Dupouy and Gurinovic, 2020; Frija, 2021; Kruseman et al., 2021):

  • Population growth is expected to drive growth in overall wheat demand in the region, but per capita wheat consumption is not expected to increase by 2050[1] (Frija, 2021). Grain cereals in the region are expected to be substituted with higher-value energy-dense foods, such as fish and meat.
  • Legume consumption per capita is expected to increase in some countries in the region (such as Tunisia and Turkey) by 2050. However, the consumption of legumes and pulses will remain very low in terms of relative importance in the overall diet. Future diets in MENA sub-region will primarily be based on cereals and animal source foods (Frija, 2021).
  • Current and future nutritional challenges in Central Asia are driving the rates of overweight and obesity, micronutrient deficiencies, and diet-related non-communicable diseases (Dupouy and Gurinovic, 2020).

Opportunities for further foresight research on CWANA region food systems transformation 

Decision making to reduce risks related to high dependence on food imports from international markets is critical (as illustrated by the case of unreliable wheat imports under the Russia-Ukraine crisis). Reducing yield volatility in major crops presents a significant opportunity to mitigate risks. Additionally, enhancing countries’ capabilities in predicting world food prices and establishing systems for anticipating purchases and storage decisions, along with improving related infrastructure, can contribute to diminishing risks in the food supply chain. Implementing these strategies can help governments reduce commodity price volatility and stabilize their budgets through better predictability of food imports (Belhaj and Soliman, 2021) across various possible future scenarios

Approaches for technology transfer to support long-term growth of agricultural productivity are also important to address the R&D gap in the region. Most extension systems in the region lack holistic system-based advice consistent with a wider “value chain” framework (Ryan et al., 2012). The scope of agricultural innovations (including water-saving technologies, conservation agriculture, and wastewater treatment) is not only limited to agricultural productivity growth but can also lead to broader economic opportunities and growth, thus leading to increased labor market demand and social welfare.

Food systems resilience is conceptualized from a holistic perspective, as encompassing the complexity of whole food systems, including social, economic, and biophysical processes operating at many scales (Tendall et al., 2015). There is a lack of consistent and holistic R&D approaches to food systems analysis and transformation in the CWANA region which carefully consider the use and application of food systems principles and approaches in national and regional strategies. These elements should be a focus of future foresight studies in the region.

A significant trend toward exploring more environmental-friendly and socially inclusive agroecological approaches for sustainable transformation of agri-food systems is currently seen in the literature and in some key policy arenas. However, there is still a lack of data and foresight studies about the prospective scenarios of transition pathways and their respective costs and benefits of such transformations in CWANA. Improved estimates of costs and benefits of such transformation scenarios generated by foresight studies would certainly be welcomed by policy makers and donors in support of sustainable agri-food systems transitions. 

Enhancing agricultural modernization and sustainability of agri-food systems while supporting productivity enhancement, agroecology transformation, and decentralized natural resources governance will require the development of novel viable financial mechanisms to this end. This is especially due to the lack of public funding and negative budgetary balances in most of the non-oil-exporting countries in CWANA. Examples of social enterprises, public-private partnerships, youth entrepreneurship, cooperative farming, micro-financing, etc. are emerging in the region and need to be supported by improved assessment of future impacts and evidence-based prioritization.

Social protection measures (safety nets and food aid programs) are being questioned and revised by governments in most of the CWANA countries; this is again due to lack of public funding, but also due to external pressure from donors and international funding agencies. The lack of evidence and accurate assessments, as well as of alternative social protection options, to support decision making should be addressed through strategic foresight studies. Other social considerations such as the feminization of agriculture and youth engagement are also considered as important gaps which need to be investigated as part of foresight work in the region. 

[1]Based on an analysis of future trends based on historical data.

The author of this note is Aymen Frija, Senior Scientist and Agricultural Economist with ICARDA’s Social, Economic, and Policy Research Team. If you have any feedback or questions about this note, please get in touch with the author.


Further reading: 

  • Dupouy, E., & Gurinovic, M. (2020). Sustainable food systems for healthy diets in Europe and Central Asia: Introduction to the special issue. Food Policy, 96, 101952. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.FOODPOL.2020.101952
  • El Kharraz, J., El-Sadek, A., Ghaffour, N., & Mino, E. (2012). Water scarcity and drought in WANA countries. Procedia Engineering, 33, 14–29. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.PROENG.2012.01.1172
  • Frija, A. (2021). Dietary change in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and North Africa: historical changes and future food consumption perspectives.
  • Kruseman, G., Frija, A., & Gbegbelegbe, S. D. (2018). Foresight for Maize and Wheat.
  • Kruseman, G., Mottaleb, K. A., Frija, A., Gbegbelegbe, S. D., Bairagi, S., & Springmann, M. (2021). Effects of dietary change-Synthesis across the case studies. CIMMYT.
  • Läderach, P., Schapendonk, F., Ruckstuhl, S., Dutta Gupta, T., Biradar, C., Vinay, N., Udalagama, U., Hugh, B., Yigezu, Y. A., Najjar, D., & others. (2022). Climate Security in the MENA Region.
  • Sarant, L. (2019). Predicting climate change impact on Afro-Arabian biodiversity. Nature Middle East. https://doi.org/10.1038/NMIDDLEEAST.2019.18
  • Zittis, G., Hadjinicolaou, P., Almazroui, M., Bucchignani, E., Driouech, F., El Rhaz, K., Kurnaz, L., Nikulin, G., Ntoumos, A., Ozturk, T., Proestos, Y., Stenchikov, G., Zaaboul, R., & Lelieveld, J. (2021). Business-as-usual will lead to super and ultra-extreme heatwaves in the Middle East and North Africa. Npj Climate and Atmospheric Science 2021 4:1, 4(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41612-021-00178-7



Alimkulova, E. S., Kaltayeva, S. A., Azretbergenova, G. Z., Mustafayeva, B. U., & Almukhambetova, B. Z. (2014). Development of agro-food market of Kazakhstan in conditions of modernization of economy. Life Science Journal, 11 (SPEC.ISS.1), 213–217.

Bahri, H., Annabi, M., Cheikh M’Hamed, H., & Frija, A. (2019). Assessing the long-term impact of conservation agriculture on wheat-based systems in Tunisia using APSIM simulations under a climate change context. Science of the Total Environment, 692. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.07.307

Belhaj, F., & Soliman, A. (2021, September 25). MENA Has a Food Security Problem, But There Are Ways to Address It. https://www.worldbank.org

Frija, A. (2016). Understanding trends and patterns of production, consumption and trade of pulses within Middle East-North Africa (MENA): implications for research, development and policy within the region. Amman, Jordan: International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

Frija, A. (2020). Historical analysis of institutional dynamics in rangeland management: Case of Southern Tunisia.

Fuglie, K., Gautam, M., Goyal, A., & Maloney, W. F. (2019). Harvesting Prosperity: Technology and Productivity Growth in Agriculture (License: C). The World Bank. https://doi.org/10.1596/978-1-4648-1393-1

Kruseman, G., Mottaleb, K. A., Tesfaye, K., Bairagi, S., Robertson, R., Mandiaye, D., Frija, A., Gbegbelegbe, S., Alene, A. D., & Prager, S. D. (2020a). Rural Transformation and the Future of Cereal-Based Agri-Food Systems. Global Food Security.

Kruseman, G., Mottaleb, K. A., Tesfaye, K., Bairagi, S., Robertson, R., Mandiaye, D., Frija, A., Gbegbelegbe, S., Alene, A., & Prager, S. (2020b). Rural transformation and the future of cereal-based agri-food systems. Global Food Security, 26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2020.100441

Louhaichi, M., Yigezu, Y. A., Werner, J., Dashtseren, L., El-Shater, T., & Ahmed, M. (2016). Financial incentives: Possible options for sustainable rangeland management? Journal of Environmental Management, 180, 493–503. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2016.05.077

Rosegrant, Mark W.; Sulser, Timothy B.; Mason-D’Croz, Daniel; Cenacchi, Nicola; Nin-Pratt, Alejandro; Dunston, Shahnila; Zhu, Tingju; Ringler, Claudia; Wiebe, Keith D.; Robinson, Sherman; Willenbockel, Dirk; Xie, Hua; Kwon, Ho Young; Johnson, Timothy; Thomas, Timothy S.; Wimmer, Florian; Schaldach, Rüdiger; Nelson, Gerald C.; and Willaarts, Barbara 2017. Quantitative foresight modeling to inform the CGIAR research portfolio. Project Report for USAID. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). http://ebrary.ifpri.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15738coll2/id/131144

Ryan, J., Ibrikci, H., Delgado, A., Torrent, J., Sommer, R., & Rashid, A. (2012). Significance of Phosphorus for Agriculture and the Environment in the West Asia and North Africa Region. Advances in Agronomy, 114, 91–153. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-394275-3.00004-3

Shideed, K. H., Shomo, F., & Aw-Hassan, A. (2010). Chapter 69 Population Growth and Trends in Food Production and Consumption in the CWANA Region. Handbook of Agricultural Economics, 4, 3531–3570. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1574-0072(09)04069-9

Tendall, D. M., Joerin, J., Kopainsky, B., Edwards, P., Shreck, A., Le, Q. B., Kruetli, P., Grant, M., & Six, J. (2015). Food system resilience: Defining the concept. Global Food Security, 6, 17–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.GFS.2015.08.001

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2022). World Population Prospects 2022: Summary of Results. UN DESA/POP/2022/TR/NO. 3. www.unpopulation.org

Van Duivenbooden, N., Pala, M., Studer, C., Bielders, C. L., & Beukes, D. J. (2000). Cropping systems and crop complementarity in dryland agriculture to increase soil water use efficiency: a review. NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 48(3), 213–236. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1573-5214(00)80015-9

Photo: Irrigation canal, Morocco. Credit: Vincent Simonneaux/IRD

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