The Mediterranean is today a region in which growing ecological, economic, social and cultural challenges coexist with unresolved international tensions. Significant discrepancies in development levels between countries, together with regional conflicts, raise more challenges for the sustainable future of the Mediterranean region. The Mediterranean is currently seen mostly as a dividing sea, but culturally diverse countries are still found united within the Mediterranean diet heritage, without this distorting the identity of each of them.
In the Mediterranean, there are different food cultures, expressed in the wide variety of foods of the Mediterranean diet, scientifically recognized as one of the healthiest diets in the world. Paradoxically, the impressive quantity of scientific publications on the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet did not result in changing current unhealthy and unsustainable food consumption patterns in Mediterranean countries. The Mediterranean diet, acknowledged by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, is testimony to the strong connections between peoples, who live around the same sea, their territories and their ways of life. Today, these ties need to be strongly safeguarded from increasing erosion and revitalized as a contemporary sustainable and healthy life style.
Across the Mediterranean region, there is an “inequalitarian drift” in the current relations between Northern Mediterranean countries and Southern-Eastern ones, where many difficulties are encountered due to the existing economic, social/cultural disparities and conflicts.
In fact, the macroeconomic indicators of the Mediterranean region emphasize the marked heterogeneity among the countries and a growing gap between the advanced economies in the northern shores and the less developed ones in the southern/eastern ones. Indeed, the region is facing unprecedented global challenges that affect food security, nutrition and sustainability, and thus the livelihoods of Mediterranean people. Current challenges include:
Ecological sustainability: over-exploitation of natural resources and adverse impacts of environmental degradation by climate change (such as water scarcity, desertification, drought, land degradation, the loss of biodiversity); lack of good practices for resilience and ecosystem services, urban sprawl, chemical contamination, marine pollution, marine invasive non-indigenous species.
Economic sustainability: population growth, increased demand for food, poverty and unemployment (especially among young people), conflict areas, food insecurity, migration from rural areas and other countries, urbanization, predominance of imported food, low profitability for smallholders, food sovereignty, lack of efficient rural sustainable development policies (particularly for women and youth), food loss and waste;
Social and cultural sustainability: food insecurity, malnutrition (undernutrition, hidden hunger and obesity), growing public health expenditures, erosion of the Mediterranean diet heritage, food cultures and traditional, indigenous knowledge, changes in Mediterranean societies and roles of women (cf. gender equality and inclusion), emerging new unsustainable globalized lifestyle behaviors, progressive urbanization, migration from
rural areas and from other countries, changing food procurement.
The Mediterranean coasts account for 30 per cent of global tourist arrivals in the region. Global shipping routes through the Mediterranean Sea make the density of maritime traffic exceptional for this semi-closed sea.
Approximately one-third of the Mediterranean population is concentrated along its coastal hydrological basins, where environmental stresses have increased significantly. Urban agglomerations on the Mediterranean coasts, along with tourist infrastructure, have resulted in the development of large and mega-cities, with consequent pollution pressures from the growing population and the increase in economic activities in a particularly fragile environment along the coastal zones. The marine resources and ecosystems of this region have come under increasing pressure in recent decades, driven by demographic and economic growth as well as by diversification and intensification of marine and maritime activities, as well as the expansion of the Suez Canal. Pollution, alien species, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, as well as overfishing – all have adverse impacts, not only on the marine ecosystems, but also on the well-being of Mediterranean coastal communities and riparian countries. The recent surge in the exploitation of hydrocarbons and minerals under the Mediterranean seabed also poses increased threats to the environment.
In particular, the NENA (Near East and North Africa) countries are facing pressing challenges that are greatly affecting their capacity to increase sustainably food supplies for a growing population (e.g. booming young populations) and consequent increased food demand and market prices, increasing poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition as well as transboundary plant, animal and fish pests and diseases and man-made conflicts.
The NENA is a region intensively exposed to the dynamics of climate change, such as drought and desertification processes, which contribute to escalating the vulnerability of rural livelihoods. Food losses and waste (FL&W) in the NENA region are high and contribute to reduced food availability, aggravate water scarcity, adverse environmental impacts and increased food imports in an already highly import-dependent region. Qualitative losses in the region are very high and exacerbated by deficient market infrastructure, especially for food destined for domestic markets. This includes a lack of cold chain infrastructure, poor transportation such as in non-refrigerated vehicles, and open air markets where food is exposed to heat and sunlight. These factors speed up food degradation and create health hazards. Measures to reduce quantitative losses will also reduce qualitative losses. The causes and origins of FL&W are attributed to poor farming systems and deficient infrastructure and practices at all post-harvest stages of the supply chain. In the last two decades, the population has doubled due to high birth rates, with this demographic change taking place rapidly on a rich but fragile resource base, with acknowledged limitations in terms of land, water and food production, especially characterized by rain-dependent production and traditional agro-silvo-pastoral systems and artisanal fisheries. Insecurity is aggravated by high unemployment rates in the general population, especially among youth. The impacts of poverty and unemployment have contributed to social marginalization, which is further compounded by income disparities, and gives rise to social and political instability. Mounting economic, social, and environmental strains and their resultant implications on livelihood security make the situation unsustainable in NENA countries.
All Mediterranean countries are passing through a “nutrition transition” in which under-nutrition problems (wasting, stunting, underweight) and micronutrient deficiencies coexist with over-nutrition problems (overweight, obesity) and diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases. This nutrition transition is alarming as it affects negatively the livelihood of all people in the region. In many Mediterranean countries, eating habits are changing towards “Westernized” style dietary patterns. The urbanization of society, the integration of women into the labor market, long working hours and retail development are modifying considerably dietary behaviors. Therefore, this growing nutrition transition also has a direct effect on the erosion of the Mediterranean Diet, as noted by several surveys that is increasingly less followed by the populations of the Mediterranean countries, with undesirable impacts not only on health and nutrition but also on cultural, social, economic, environment sustainability in these territories. Data show that the Mediterranean diet is becoming less the diet of choice in most Mediterranean countries, despite the fact that its health and nutrition benefits have been supported by scientific evidences since the early epidemiologic and cohort studies conducted more than 50 years ago.
The Mediterranean diet is associated with its characteristic food products, inextricably linked to the Mediterranean agrarian and sea landscapes, with their diversified ecological, cultural, social and economic dimensions. The symbolic value of food and its identification and differentiation has led to the creation of strong links between local food and local heritage and identity — the construction of cuisines de terroir(s), and local-food production knowledge and skills — through the establishment of systems modeled on the geographical indication of provenance. These products of origin-linked quality are strongly connected to the sustainability of the Mediterranean diet and the preservation of biodiversity. Exacerbation of gene pool depletion due to erosion of agro-biodiversity as a result of globalization trends and climate change is reducing the sustainability of local production systems, along with the ability to safeguard the Mediterranean Diet heritage based on indigenous food species and varieties.
The Mediterranean is among the richest regions in biodiversity in the world, home to a multiplicity of ecosystems and species. It has in fact been identified as a “hotspot” of biodiversity, an area featuring exceptional concentrations of endemic and historically imported species, but which are sadly experiencing unprecedented loss of habitat. This loss of agricultural diversity occurring around the region has negative repercussions on the food and nutritional security and livelihood of the local populations. The loss of indigenous knowledge on the use of local crops in favor of a small number of recently imported non-native species and varieties has affected traditional food production systems and biodiversity across the Mediterranean area.